Managing the Sounds of Tinnitus

When most of us think of hearing problems, the first thing that comes to mind is hearing loss; perhaps because we all know someone in our life who has experienced hearing loss. But audiologists and other hearing care professionals help patients cope with a variety of hearing problems.

One of the most common is ringing in the ears, also called tinnitus, pronounced TIN-ah-tuss or tah-NIGHT-us. But no matter how you pronounce it, it comes down to a royal pain in the ear for a lot of patients, young and old. And the fact is, there’s no cure for the condition.

Tinnitus: Whoosh, Swish, and Ssssss

sounds of tinnitus
Tinnitus have you worrried? There's help.

The sounds of tinnitus vary person to person and may consist of whistling, hissing, swooshing and ringing – sometimes all at once. You know that’ll drive you a little nutty. And although tinnitus is most typically described as a “ringing”, patients with tinnitus hear a variety of sounds from sources that…well, that just aren’t fully known by researchers. In many cases, tinnitus symptoms are mild and don’t disrupt daily life.

In more severe cases, the constant ringing, whistling and whooshing can quickly lead to anxiety and, ultimately, depression.

According to the American Tinnitus Association (ATA), an estimated 50 million Americans experience tinnitus to some degree. Of these, 12 million have symptoms severe enough to seek medical attention and roughly 2 million are so debilitated; they are not able to function on a “normal” day-to-day basis.

For the 2 million severe cases, the individual’s ability to work, his/her personal relationships with spouse, friends and neighbors are affected and, ultimately, quality of life is significantly reduced.

Imagine having a constant ringing. Never stops from the moment you awake (if you could get to sleep) until bed time, when those annoying sounds can prevent sleep from coming.

It’s a serious, often long-term problem, and one that affects people you know.

Cause of Tinnitus

Although the exact cause of tinnitus is unknown, hearing researchers have uncovered a number of possible sources for tinnitus – some preventable, some not so much. For example, tinnitus is often associated with hearing loss. According to ATA, up to 90 percent of all tinnitus patients have some degree of hearing loss.

Exposure to loud noise is another cause of tinnitus. Ever left a rock concert or loud movie with ringing in your ears? It’s pretty common, but if allowed to “heal itself” this kind of ringing in the ears may go away.

However, if the exposure to loud noise is regular and on-going, and the ear doesn’t have the opportunity to heal itself, the condition can easily (and quickly) become permanent. Not to mention you may also have permanent noise-induced hearing loss. That’s a critical reason to give your ears a break once in a while from your MP3 player. Ears can heal themselves if the noise exposure is eliminated and the individual creates a quiet environment for a day or two.

Disease and other health conditions have been tied to tinnitus, such as cardiovascular problems and various autoimmune diseases. Ear and sinus infection, head/neck trauma and jaw misalignments are also often associated with tinnitus.

Tinnitus can also be caused temporarily by something as simple as the build-up of ear wax and by simply removing the ear wax, the tinnitus diminishes. Ear wax removal can be safely performed by a hearing care professional such as an otolaryngologist or an audiologist.

Finally, certain medications, like high-dose antibiotics, cancer chemo drugs and even plain old aspirin, can cause bouts of tinnitus – some of which last as long as the medication is taken. That’s one reason that physicians recommend low-dose aspirin for those taking aspirin for heart health. The lower dose of aspirin provides the heart health benefits folks are after without doing damage to the ear.

Treating Tinnitus

"One of the frustrating things about tinnitus is that there aren't any universal successful treatments," says Dr. Charles Beatty, M.D., a Mayo Clinic specialist in head and neck disorders said in a recent Mayo Clinic Women’s Health Source. "The good news is that the problem usually isn't associated with a serious medical condition, and there are ways we can try to make the tinnitus less annoying and disruptive."

According to the experts, the best “cure” is prevention. Be aware of the sounds around you and when you are exposed to loud noises, take steps to protect your ears. If you’re going to be pushing the lawn mower around Saturday mornings, buy a pair of ear plugs to protect what nature gave you. Good hearing.

When you’re exposed to loud noise, give your ears a chance to heal themselves. Take breaks from the MP3 player. Quiet time provides the ear mechanism the opportunity to rest and hopefully return to normal hearing levels – without tinnitus. For persons with hearing loss and that are experiencing tinnitus, consider wearing hearing aids. A recent survey of 230 hearing health professionals, performed by the Better Hearing Institute, “found that six out of ten patients reported some relief of their tinnitus when using hearing aids and two of ten reported major relief.”

Stay clear of stimulants that can aggravate tinnitus. Caffeine, nicotine and some decongestants can aggravate an existing problem.

As mentioned, take low dose aspirin. Also, don’t take aspirin for every little ache or pain. Most of us think of aspirin as a one-stop painkiller, fixing everything from arthritis to migraines. Remember, aspirin is a powerful medication but it has some nasty side effects, too. One of which is tinnitus.

Live a “heart healthy” lifestyle to promote blood circulation and healthy blood pressure. This includes daily exercise, visits to your physician, reducing salt intake as salt can restrict blood circulation and getting plenty of rest.

Stress has also been a suspect source of tinnitus. Perhaps learn to meditate. Soft music, scented candles, safety and serenity. These simple pleasures relax the brain and the body, soothing the tension that’s sometimes associated with tinnitus.

Most importantly, discuss tinnitus with your physician and/or audiologist. Tinnitus can lead to anxiety, depression and an overall reduced quality in life. And in rare cases, tinnitus can be the sign of a more serious health issue that may require medical intervention.

An audiologist specializing in tinnitus will be able to determine if any sort of tinnitus treatment or therapy is recommended. Yes that is correct – there are treatment options and you do not need to live with this for the rest of your life. And as discussed, treatment may be as simple as wearing hearing aids and a hearing evaluation will be determine this.

So give your ears a break from the loud noise. Protect them when around noise. Discuss symptoms and concerns with your hearing care professional – they are there to help you.

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