People who experience tinnitus describe it differently. Some experience a whooshing sound in their ears. Others experience a hissing sound, a whistle or a roar. And some simply identify their symptoms as phantom sounds – sounds that aren't produced naturally but are caused by a condition called tinnitus, or what most of us would call "ringing in the ears."
Some who experience tinnitus only hear the ringing, pinging, whooshing and swooshing when they're in a quiet environment. These same people don't hear the mystery sounds when other sounds in their environment mask the symptoms of tinnitus.
But when the sound is off, the symptoms of tinnitus return – often in the quiet of the night, making sleep difficult.
Unfortunately there are millions that hear their tinnitus at all times, no matter the level of background noise in their environment.
And now new research reveals more of us may experience tinnitus due to cell phone use. Are you at risk?
What Causes Tinnitus?
According to the American Tinnitus Association (ATA) it is estimated that "over 50 million Americans experience tinnitus to some degree. Of these, about 12 million have severe enough tinnitus to seek medical attention. And about two million patients are so seriously debilitated that they cannot function on a "normal," day-to-day basis."
Knowing the causes of tinnitus puts you in a better position to avoid the problem, and since there's no known cure for this condition, avoiding the problem altogether is your best option.
There are have been many advancements in tinnitus research over the years, yet the exact physiological cause or causes of tinnitus are still unknown. There are, however, several likely sources that are known to trigger tinnitus. According to ATA the number one trigger of tinnitus is exposure to loud noise. Other causes include: head and neck trauma, various auto immune disorders, tumors, wax build up in the ear canal, jaw misalignment, cardiovascular disease and ototoxic medications.
Triple Play: Noise, Hearing Loss and Tinnitus
In a report recently published on the RNID, researchers from the University of Western Australia, undertook a study of animals with measureable hearing loss caused by loud noise.
When test subjects were placed in a quiet environment, hearing improved. Hearing loss was less noticeable. However, researchers also noticed a spike in hearing center brain activity that's associated with tinnitus.
Conclusion? Exposure to loud noise and hearing loss may cause the brain to rewire itself. Perhaps to compensate for hearing loss. However, the spontaneous rewiring of the brain may also be part of the cause of tinnitus. In other words, that ringing in your ears may be a brain thing, not an ear thing, though the study is far from conclusive. This information was observed, but don't jump to any conclusions.
Dr Sohaila Rastan, RNID's Chief Scientific Advisor, said: "This research illustrates just how important it is to protect your hearing from loud noise. Even if your hearing is not permanently affected, the way your brain processes sound may be changed which could result in tinnitus."
You might want to consider that the next time you plug in your MP3 ear buds. Oh yeah, the tunes block out the world but they may also cause tinnitus – something that lowers the quality of life for millions of people who live through the constant ringing or whooshing sounds as they try to live normal lives – something that's not easy to do.
Let's Add One More Possible Source of Tinnitus: Cell Phones
Sure you love your cell. How did we ever get along without them? But a report that appeared in the British Medical Journal indicates that cell phone use – especially extended cell phone use – may now be added to the list of causes of tinnitus.
The report indicates that 10-15% of us experience some degree of tinnitus – a number that appears to be growing, in part, because more and more of us are using mobile telephones to stay plugged in no matter where we are.
This study involved a small group of 100 people who had used cell phones for at least four years, and was published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
The study excluded those with obvious tinnitus triggers like ear disease or noise-induced hearing loss so researchers could eliminate other causes of tinnitus and focus solely on cell phone use – how often and how long.
The report revealed that most tinnitus was one-sided. A significant number of test subjects reported that the ringing was distressing "most of the time," lowering quality of life for those who must live with sounds that aren't really there.
Now, the good news: a large percentage of those who used their cell phones for four years or more reported that they had experienced tinnitus before hooking up to the wireless communications grid. That indicates that the start of tinnitus may have been caused by some other reason. However, cell phone use made the problem worse and more noticeable.
These researchers suggest a plausible explanation of why cell phone use may contribute to worsening tinnitus. The report states "[there's] a potential link between mobile phones and tinnitus as the cochlea and the auditory pathway directly absorb a considerable amount of energy emitted by a mobile [cell phone]."
In other words, the wireless connectivity required for cell phone use actually damages the hearing mechanism, making a bad situation worse. Cases of people with tinnitus worsen with the use of cell phones.
While nothing will cure that incessant ringing or roaring in the ears, there are options to treat the symptoms, lessening the negative impact tinnitus has on quality of life.
One option is sound therapy and is recognized among professionals as being one the more effective treatments for tinnitus. Sound therapy uses sound to minimize the loudness or prominence of the tinnitus sound being heard. Sound therapies can consist of wearable and non-wearable devices. For more information on sound therapy and other recognized tinnitus treatment's visit ATA's list of tinnitus treatments.
One of the best treatments is to avoid the problem in the first place. Protect the hearing you have by wearing ear plugs when exposed to excessive noise. Avoid listening to your MP3 player at loud volume. Give your ears a break after being exposed. Hearing loss and tinnitus due to excessive noise exposure is often temporary if you give your ears a break. However, if the ears are NOT given a chance to heal and damage is caused by exposure to loud noise over a long period of time, tinnitus may become permanent, and guaranteed, you aren't going to like it one bit.
If you already experience symptoms of tinnitus, these new studies clearly show that using a cell phone over a long period of time is going to make the problem – and the ringing – worse over time.
In this case, researchers believe that the energy produced by the cell phone is the cause behind the worsening tinnitus, not the noise produced by the cell phone itself. Again, because the study group was so small, hearing loss specialists are speculating as to the relationship between cell phone use and tinnitus – but these studies point the way for further research on the effect cell phone wireless sound energy impacts the sensitive hearing mechanism.
One thing's for sure: by using your cell phone less, you lessen the likelihood of making your tinnitus worse. That's just plain old common sense. When you hold that cell phone up to you ear, your hearing is bombarded by a variety of energy – the energy used to send sound signals to your mobile telephone.
The next time your cell phone rings, think about ringing in your ears. Then, take the call, keep it short and hear better longer. Indeed, more studies are required but the results of these studies clearly show that cell phones and ringing in the ears are related.
Disconnect when you can. Keep it short when you can't. Your ears will thank you in the years ahead.
If you have tinnitus symptoms it is recommended you see a hearing professiona for a full hearing evaluation. Find a hearing professional near you to get started.