Tinnitus: Symptom or disease and how it’s both

Contributed by | Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

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There’s a noise in your ears that no one else can hear – a buzzing, ringing or whooshing sound that won’t go away — and it is driving you crazy. Is it a disease you wonder? Or a symptom of something more sinister? Just as important – will it ever go away?

Most of us have experienced this condition, especially after a night enjoying the music of a favorite rock and roll band or an afternoon cheering for the home team at the local stadium. If the ringing and buzzing doesn’t go away after a few hours however, it’s time for a trip to your hearing healthcare professional. Their examination will reveal whether or not you have a condition known as tinnitus as well as whether it’s a symptom of another medical issue or is so chronic it classifies as a disease all by itself.

What is tinnitus?

tinnitus symptoms
Tinnitus can be difficult to 
understand. We're breaking
down whether it's a symptom
or a disease!

Tinnitus (pronounced ti-NIGHT-us or TIN-i-tus) is the sensation of a ringing or buzzing in the ears even when there is no external sound present. You might hear the noise sporadically or constantly, and it may be loud or barely noticeable. Sometimes it’s worse — especially when there isn’t any background noise, such as when you are trying to fall asleep in a quiet room.

According to the American Tinnitus Association (ATA), more than 50 million people suffer from some form of tinnitus. While most people consider it a minor annoyance, more than 12 million with severe cases find it disruptive to their personal and professional relationships. Many of these individuals with chronic cases of tinnitus are veterans. In fact, tinnitus is the single largest category for disability claims in the military. Hearing loss is the second.

There are two types of tinnitus:

  • Subjective tinnitus is the most common form of this condition, accounting for more than 99 percent of all cases. Because the noise is caused by a malfunction of the inner ear, no sound waves are involved and only the affected person can hear the noise
  • Objective tinnitus accounts for less than five percent of all cases and usually involves sounds made by vascular or muscular conditions which are detectable by others. For example, those who hear a whooshing sound with each heart beat may have pulsatile tinnitus, a condition their physician can hear with his stethoscope.

Tinnitus is a symptom

Most hearing health professionals believe tinnitus is a symptom of another condition or illness, such as:

  • Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL): prolonged exposure to loud noise is the most common reason for up to 90 percent of individuals diagnosed with the condition. Those who have been exposed to a single, loud noise – such as an explosion or gun shot – may experience damage to the sensory hair cells in the inner ear and develop NIHL. Those who work in noisy professions, such as construction, music, or landscaping as well as those with loud hobbies such as hunting, motorcycling, and snowmobiling, may also suffer from NIHL.
  • Presbycusis: Hearing loss that develops as part of the natural aging process is known as presbycusis. During this process, the cochlea and other parts of the ear deteriorate and tinnitus may occur.
  • Ototoxic medications: Some medications, such as aspirin, several types of antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, sedatives, anti-depressants and quinine medications can negatively affect your hearing health and cause tinnitus.
  • Meniere’s disease: This disease affects the inner ear, causing progressive deafness and, in some cases, attacks of vertigo and tinnitus.
  • Blockage of the ear such as excess ear wax, infections or benign tumors
  • Head, neck or jaw problems such as head injuries or TMJ syndrome
  • Other medical problems including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, anemia and diabetes

In some cases, tinnitus is reduced when the underlying cause of the condition is treated.                                                                                       

Tinnitus is a disease

In other cases, tinnitus is so chronic and debilitating it can cause other health problems including stress, anxiety, insomnia, depression and even thoughts of suicide.  While it isn’t curable, it can be managed, even in these extreme situations.

Dr. James Henry, a research scientist at the National Center for Rehabilitative Auditory Research at the VA Medical Center in Portland, Ore. has developed five progressive treatment protocols to help veterans with chronic cases of tinnitus manage their condition. In an Oct. 28, 2013 post published by Psychology Today, Dr. Henry describes his five-step Progressive Tinnitus Management Program. While levels one and two deal with getting patients to hearing healthcare providers and treating any detected hearing loss, level three focuses on showing patients how to use sound, relaxation exercises and diversion activities to manage their tinnitus. Dr. Henry said 95 percent of those attending the level three workshops succeed in managing their tinnitus.

Additionally, several hearing aid manufacturers, such as Oticon, have developed hearing solutions with tinnitus relief features which are to be used in tandem with tinnitus management programs.

Seek treatment

Whether you consider tinnitus a symptom of a larger issue or something isolated, it needs to be evaluated by a hearing care professional and other medical professionals to determine if there is something causing it and how to best treat it. The first step is to seek treatment from an ear, nose and throat (ENT) physician or hearing healthcare professional who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of tinnitus. In the meantime, avoid substances such as alcohol, smoking and drinking caffeinated beverages, which can exacerbate your condition. Try to get plenty of rest and relaxation. Finally, it’s also important to maintain a positive outlook and find a support group with people who understand what you are dealing with.

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