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Tinnitus: The ringing in your ears

Contributed by , staff writer for Healthy Hearing

Tinnitus is a medical term for a condition in which sound is perceived in one or both ears, when no external sound is actually present. It is often described as a ringing or hissing noise, and can be an indicator of some form of hearing loss.

Tinnitus occurs through a disruption in the communication channel between your ear and the auditory cortex of your brain. When this happens, the nerves in the cortex can misfire spontaneously and begin to “chatter,” which results in the ringing noise tinnitus patients suffer from. This phenomenon is called neural synchronization.

According to the American Tinnitus Association (ATA), some 50 million Americans suffer from tinnitus, 16 million of whom have to seek out medical treatment due to the severity of their condition. Research is being done constantly to seek out new solutions, and there are certain forms of treatment available, including medicine, therapy and acupuncture.

tinnitus
Noise exposure from loud music or while on the
job can increase your risk of tinnitus. 

Causes

The ATA says many cases of tinnitus remain undiagnosed, but there are a number of common factors associated with those who suffer from tinnitus. They include:

  • Noise exposure
  • Head and neck trauma - Other symptoms include headaches, vertigo, and memory loss.
  • Certain disorders, such as hypo- or hyperthyroidism, Meniere's disease, Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, and thoracic outlet syndrome, can have tinnitus as a symptom.
  • Certain types of tumors
  • Wax build-up
  • Jaw misalignment
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Ototoxicity - Certain medicines are known to be ototoxic, or damaging to your hearing.
  • Pulsatile tinnitus - Rare type of tinnitus that sounds like a rhythmic pulsing in the ear, typically in time with one's heartbeat, and can be caused by abnormal blood flow in arteries or veins close to the inner ear, brain tumors or irregularities in brain structure.
  • Age
  • Unhealthy habits like smoking, poor diet and caffeinated drinks.

Treatment

Treatment for tinnitus depend on the cause. If the underlying cause is an illness or disease, treating the disorder itself can reduce or halt tinnitus entirely. While there is no cure, researchers are testing a new implantable device that will effectively retrain the brain to end the ringing. The procedure places an electrode on the vagus nerve in the neck, with a link to a processor the size of a pacemaker in the upper chest.

By stimulating the vagus nerve, researchers hope the brain will adapt through neuroplasticity, in which the brain pathways respond to changes in environment or behavior. Patients will spend time over several months listening to a series of tones for two-and-a-half hours each day while the nerve is being stimulated. This type of treatment has also been used in cases of epilepsy and depression.

Other forms of treatment offered include masking devices, much like hearing aids, that emit a soft sound to drown out the ringing in your ears. There is also a non-implantable hearing aid that practices the same form of tonal therapy described in the new study above. These devices can effectively override the part of your brain that short-circuits to emit the tinnitus sound and potentially reprogram your brain to return to normal function.

Essentially two-thirds of Americans who suffer from tinnitus don’t seek help. While not all forms of tinnitus are treatable, an audiologist can determine if your form of tinnitus can be reversed or reduced. Contact an audiologist in your area today.

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