What is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus (tin-NY-tus) occurs when you hear a sound or sounds in the ears or head without an external source. This can be ringing, buzzing, whooshing, clicking, or other sounds. The most common form of tinnitus is Subjective Tinnitus, meaning you are the only person who can hear it (it cannot be heard by others). Objective Tinnitus, which is rare, is when the sound can be heard by the examiner and is typically generated by structures in or near the ear.
Some people are not bothered by their tinnitus. For others, it can affect their ability to fall asleep or stay asleep. It can also affect their ability to concentrate, enjoy their social life, and can increase their risk of depression or anxiety.
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What Causes Tinnitus?
It is important to understand that Tinnitus is not a disease itself. It is a symptom associated with other health conditions. The most common cause of tinnitus is hearing loss; however, there are over 200 different health disorders that can generate tinnitus as a symptom. Here are the most common:
Sensorineural hearing loss is often associated with tinnitus; however, the cause of hearing loss could be due to age or noise exposure. If you have symptoms of tinnitus, you may not realize you even have hearing loss caused by damage to the hearing system. A hearing evaluation is the only way to assess the hearing system to know if your hearing is damaged, and if so, how badly.
Obstructions in the Ear
Tinnitus can be caused by a simple blockage of wax in your ear canal, congestion/cold like symptoms, or middle ear fluid.
Many prescription drugs list tinnitus as a potential side effect. The good news is, for most of these drugs, tinnitus is a short-lived side effect and goes away once you stop taking the medication. Consult with your pharmacist will help determine if there is a better substitute for you.
TMJ (Temporomandibular Joint Disorder)
Somatic tinnitus can be caused by TMJ. This occurs when there is damage to the muscles or ligaments where the lower jaw connects to the skull, in front of your ear. Typically, if you suffer from TMJ you will have symptoms of pain in the jaw or face and hear a popping sound when you talk or chew. A specialized Dentist can diagnose and often fix TMJ issues, which will get rid of the tinnitus.
Head and Neck Trauma:
Another cause of somatic tinnitus is head and neck injuries. This can cause issues with blood flow and nerves that will, in turn, cause tinnitus. Typically, this will produce variability in the sound, pitch and location of the tinnitus.
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How Is Tinnitus Diagnosed?
Approximately 25 million Americans experience tinnitus. If you are among them, you might be wondering what you should do. The first step is to see an Audiologist. About 80% of people with tinnitus have some degree of hearing loss, so you will want to see an Audiologist who specializes in Tinnitus. Even if you choose not to get hearing aids, it is important to have a good understanding of your hearing loss, how it is impacting your tinnitus and a review of the different tinnitus therapies available to you. The Audiologist may also refer you to an otolaryngologist or cardiologist to rule out possible underlying medical issues, especially if you have pulsatile tinnitus.
What If the Sounds in My Ear Do Not Go Away?
One of the most common concerns tinnitus patients have is ‘what if the sounds never go away?’ It can seem overwhelming and hopeless, but it doesn’t have to be. Now there are millions of people who have tinnitus and are not bothered by it. Imagine you live near the airport. At first the sounds of the airplanes taking off and landing are very disruptive and noticeable; however, after living there for months you will no longer even notice the sounds of the airplanes. Why is that? Your brain has become accustomed to the noise. It has determined the sounds of the airplanes are not important or a threat and so your brain puts those sounds in the background. You no longer focus on it. The same is true for the refrigerator in the kitchen. All day long the fan noise of your fridge will kick on and off throughout the day; however, you do not react to that sound. You don’t stand there in the morning with your coffee and think ‘how am I going to get any work done today with that fridge noise turning on and off all day long’. You don’t react to the noise because your brain has determined that sound is not important or a threat.
Tinnitus Risk Factors
Tinnitus has many causes as stated above, but what about risk factors? Is there anything you can do to reduce the risk of experiencing tinnitus? Yes and no… The most common risk factor is exposure to loud noise. Think of loud, heavy equipment (lawn mowers, power tools, firearms, factory and farming equipment) or music devices (earbuds, headphones, speakers, etc…). If you work or enjoy loud sounds, you are putting yourself at risk for hearing loss and tinnitus.
Age is another risk factor for tinnitus. Hearing loss is heavily associated with tinnitus, and those over the age of 60 are more susceptible to hearing loss. That’s why seniors are likely to develop tinnitus. About 30% of older adults are experiencing tinnitus on a regular basis.