It may be a constant ringing or buzzing sound. Maybe you describe it as a whooshing, whine or cricket noise. All you know is that, even though there isn’t really there, your ears hear the noise almost constantly. Your audiologist has diagnosed your condition as tinnitus, a disorder you share with more than 50 million Americans.
Currently, there is no cure for this hearing disorder; however, studies by hearing health professionals are learning more about the condition every day. Recently, University of Illinois speech and hearing professor Fatima Husain led a study using magnetic resonance imagine (MRI) to study how brains of tinnitus sufferers react to emotion. The group’s report was published in the journal Brain Research.
The University of Illinois researchers studied three groups of participants: those with mild-to-moderate hearing loss and mild tinnitus, people with mild-to-moderate hearing loss without tinnitus, and a control group of age-matched people without hearing loss or tinnitus. Each group listened to a standard set of sounds: 30 pleasant, 30 unpleasant and 30 emotionally neutral sounds.
Husain said they discovered those with tinnitus reacted more slowly to emotion-producing sounds than those with normal hearing. Those with hearing loss had the same reaction time to each category.
The researchers conducted the study because, according to Husain, there wasn’t much research published on tinnitus and emotional processing. She believes brains of tinnitus patients experience plasticity – or change – and reroute emotions to other parts of the brain because the amygdala is busy dealing with the phantom noise.
The brain is affected by tinnitus because it processes the sound our ears collect. According to Husain and her U of I researchers, parts of the brain affected by tinnitus include the amygdala, which is responsible for emotional processing, as well as the parahippocampus and insula, which are also associated with emotion.
According to the American Tinnitus Association (ATA), more than 50 million Americans experience some form of tinnitus. Sufferers describe the phantom sounds they hear as ringing, hissing, static, screeching, sirens, ocean waves, clicking, dial tones and even music, to name a few. While the exact cause isn’t know, there are various sources which may trigger this condition. Those include:
- Excessive exposure to noise
- Head and neck trauma
- Certain disorders, such as Meniere’s Disease and fibromyalgia
- Certain types of tumors
- Wax build up
- Jaw misalignment
- Cardiovascular disease
Although there currently is no cure for tinnitus, it can be managed by treating the cause or by altering the brain’s reaction to it. Forms of tinnitus treatment include:
- Alternative treatments, such as herbal remedies or acupuncture
- Amplification with hearing aids
- Cochlear implants
- Stress reduction therapies
- Drug therapies
- Sound therapy
- TMJ therapy
- Transcranial magnetic stimulation
Hearing health professionals believe over exposure to loud noise is the leading cause of tinnitus. The condition is also the number one service-connected disability for our war veterans from all periods of service, is prevalent in those employed by the music industry and affects more than 30 million workers who are exposed to dangerous noise levels on the job each day. The ATA believes the number of Americans suffering from tinnitus could be greatly reduced by decreasing noise on the job and implementing additional procedures to minimize workers’ noise exposure.
Tinnitus is associated with increased stress, anxiety, irritability and depression, which are also commonly associated with untreated hearing loss. If you believe you have this condition, consult with your hearing healthcare professional. They can conduct a thorough examination and determine which treatment is best for you.
"It's a communication issue and a quality-of-life issue," Husan said of tinnitus. "We want to know how we can get better in the clinical realm. Audiologists and clinicians are aware that tinnitus affects emotional aspects, too, and we want to make them aware that these effects are occurring so they can better help their patients."