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Tinnitus, often referred to as a “ringing of the ears,” causes people to hear sounds without an external auditory stimulus.
According to the American Tinnitus Association, approximately 15% of Americans “experience tinnitus, often to a debilitating degree, making it one of the most common health conditions in the country.” Of this number, 20 million Americans experience chronic tinnitus, with 2 million experiencing debilitating cases. Additionally, an estimated 60% of veterans experience tinnitus (and hearing loss) due to exposure to loud sounds during combat.
Types of Tinnitus
There are two forms of tinnitus: subjective and objective.
Only the individual who has tinnitus hears the sounds in subjective tinnitus. Subjective tinnitus is the most common form of tinnitus, accounting for more than 99 percent of cases. Sensorineural hearing loss due to disruption to inner ear hair cells (aging, exposure to loud noise, and even some types of ototoxic medication) can be the source of subjective tinnitus. It can also be caused by Meniere’s disease, impacted earwax, or another medical disorder.
Making up less than 1% of cases, objective tinnitus is a rare condition. People with objective tinnitus hear the sounds, but other people in their proximity can also hear the tinnitus sounds. One form of objective tinnitus is pulsatile tinnitus, in which the rhythm of the tinnitus is matched one’s heartbeat. More often than not, cases of objective tinnitus are linked to cardiovascular or muscular problems of the body.
Signs of tinnitus
Here are some of the classic signs of tinnitus:
- Sounds like ringing, screeching, humming, whistling, or hissing.
- The sounds may be intermittent, constant, or rhythmic.
- Sounds may come and go.
- There may be one or several sounds.
- During quiet times or when trying to get to sleep, the symptoms are more apparent.
- Hearing loss and vertigo, or the feeling of spinning while standing still, are also associated with tinnitus.
Tinnitus is a frustrating condition that causes much discomfort for people who suffer from it. The experience of constant noises, which are uncontrollable to the person who has tinnitus, can negatively impact almost every area of their life.
Tinnitus could increase rates of depression, stress, anxiety, and sleep deprivation; it has also been linked to productivity, memory problems, the ability to concentrate, and fatigue. Furthermore, tinnitus points to related medical issues, such as high blood pressure or musculoskeletal problems. In chronic cases, tinnitus could have detrimental effects on one’s emotional well-being, interfering with social interaction and employment.
Tinnitus and the connection to hearing loss
Tinnitus and hearing loss often occur in tandem. An estimated 80% of cases of sensorineural hearing loss are accompanied by tinnitus.
Our inner ear hair cells are responsible for translating sound vibrations into neural signals that are registered in our brains as sound. Damage to these cells through noise exposure or ageing may lead to hearing loss and tinnitus. Some specialists speculate that damaged inner ear hair cells may “leak” sounds, leading to the “phantom” sounds emitted by tinnitus.
Unlike hearing loss, however, there is no objective way to detect tinnitus; it has to be self-reported. In testing for tinnitus, your hearing professional will ask you a series of questions to determine the underlying conditions that cause your tinnitus.
In most cases, the exact cause of tinnitus cannot be determined. As a result, there is no singular cure for tinnitus. Fortunately, there are treatment options available.
If tinnitus is linked to related medical issues, the treatment of those issues could alleviate or eliminate tinnitus. In other cases, where there is no definitive cause, tinnitus is treatable but may not be eliminated.
Hearing aid manufacturers have produced effective tinnitus treatments through sound therapy features available on hearing aids or standalone devices. Hearing aids with tinnitus therapy support hearing health by amplifying sound, reducing background noise, improving speech recognition, and masking tinnitus sound with customizable tones (nature sounds, white noise, etc.).
If you are experiencing tinnitus, it is essential to seek treatment. In some instances, your tinnitus may be linked to hearing loss. For better hearing health – and overall health, contact us for a consultation.