Tinnitus is often described as “ringing in the ears” and is the medical term to explain the perception of sound in one or two ears when no sound is actually present. According to a national health study performed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 45 million individuals in the United States suffer from tinnitus to some degree. Nearly one-third of them find it so debilitating they seek medical attention for the ringing in their ears.
While there’s no proven cure for tinnitus, by better understanding the symptoms, causes, relief and related illnesses, it is possible to develop treatments to help ease or block out the ringing-in-the-ears sensation.
Symptoms of tinnitus
Described as a ringing-in-the-ears or fullness-of-the-head sensation, these are the two most common symptoms of tinnitus in an individual. The noise can range from a ringing, buzzing, hissing or whizzing sound and can change from a soft pitch, to a higher, louder frequency. Additionally, tinnitus can impact one or both ears and can remain constant or come and go. In more severe cases, the ringing in the ears is loud enough to interfere with daily activity, whereas individuals with mild cases of tinnitus experience a lower, duller sound.
Causes of tinnitus
Tinnitus is commonly seen in adults, but can affect individuals in any age group. In addition to perceiving a noise that doesn’t exist, individuals with tinnitus may experience discomfort, lack of sleep and an inability to live life due to the condition. Anxiety also is a common symptom of tinnitus, as it can sometimes interfere with work or other stressful situations. Individuals with tinnitus also may complain of hearing clicking or sharp sounds; rushing or humming noises or continuous low-pitch noises.
With so many individuals suffering from tinnitus, it’s important to investigate what causes the ringing sensation. While many cases of tinnitus still remain undiagnosed, there are some common causes which are known to aggravate the condition:
- Age: Around the age of 60, your hearing tends to worsen. This slight loss of hearing is referred to as presbycusis, which can be accompanied by tinnitus.
- Loud noise exposure: Being exposed to loud noise on a regular basis from heavy equipment, chain saws or fire arms are common causes of tinnitus. However, anyone can have common exposure to loud noises by listening to music in headphones on a regular basis or attending live music performances frequently.
- Unhealthy habits: Researchers are not entirely certain why, but drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, eating certain foods and consuming caffeinated beverages can play a role in tinnitus.
- Common ailments: Having anemia, allergies, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, circulatory problems, diabetes and an underactive thyroid gland are all medical conditions that can lead to tinnitus.
Relief from tinnitus
Often individuals with tinnitus view their suffering as a commonality, a part of everyday life. Because many cases of tinnitus aren’t severe enough for people to seek medical treatment, they turn to finding relief in common, nonmedical varieties. While many of these vary from person to person, there are some remedies known to help ease the ringing in the ears sensation.
Many people find improving their health overall helps comfort tinnitus symptoms. This means controlling your blood pressure, reducing stress and decreasing caffeine consumption. Because some of these items stimulate your body’s systems, it’s also possible that these encourage tinnitus to flare up as well.
Individuals also try to follow relaxation techniques to help cope with and balance the tinnitus symptoms. These types of relief involve muscle relaxation and visualization.
Treatment for tinnitus
Although there’s no proven cure for tinnitus, doctors have worked over the years to develop treatments which help make tinnitus easier to ignore or relieve some of its symptoms. Noise suppression devices are commonly used to help combat the ringing-in-the-ears sensation. A masking device is worn in the ear and produces a constant, soft noise to reduce the ringing or whistling feeling in the ear. Hearing aids also are used as tinnitus solutions. These help wearers train their brains to shift focus from the tinnitus sounds.
Another treatment option is called tinnitus retaining therapy (TRT) and it is designed to teach the patient to ignore the background ringing noise in the ear. In addition to counseling sessions, a white noise generator is used to create environmental sounds to override the tinnitus.
Meniere’s disease isn’t directly connected to tinnitus, but often individuals with this condition experience many symptoms or temporary ringing in the ears. Meniere's disease is an inner ear disease that typically only affects one ear. This disease can cause pressure or pain in the ear, severe cases of dizziness or vertigo and a ringing or roaring noise. While Meniere’s isn’t fully understood yet, it appears that several relief options for tinnitus also assist individuals with this disease. Caffeine consumption should be decreased, in addition to salt intake, and stress should be reduced.
BPPV, or benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, is a common form of balance disturbance that originates in the inner ear. Individuals suffering from BPPV, sometimes referred to as “positional vertigo,” experience a brief, but intense spinning sensation that generally occurs when they get out of bed or turn their head too quickly. BPPV is the result of an inner ear condition and can be remediated by an ENT physician or audiologist through the use of a repositioning technique. Sometimes it resolves itself over a few days. BPPV has a high recurrence rate, so an ENT physician or audiologist may be able to recommend positions, exercises and therapies which can help reduce the likelihood.
Dizziness related to the inner ear is one of the most common types and it results from disturbances in the blood circulation or fluid pressure in the inner ear, pressure on the balance nerve or physiologic changes in the balance nerve. The dizziness can feel similar to vertigo or can make an individual feel nauseated or sick to their stomach.
Treatments for dizziness can vary depending on the cause, but may include dietary or lifestyle changes, medication or retraining therapies.
Getting help for tinnitus or dizziness
Both tinnitus and dizziness are often linked to hearing loss. If you are suffering from either condition, the first step to get help is to see an audiologist for a hearing exam. Look for an audiologist who specializes in these areas and mention your symptoms when you make the appointment. After the hearing evaluation, they will be able to refer you to the best professional in your area for further testing or treatment.