After a rock concert, you may leave the venue and yell to your friends all the way to the car about how great the encore was. For a couple of days after the concert, you may even experience a temporary ringing in the ears, but this clears up over a few days. However, what about permanent damage to your hearing? Tinnitus is something that 20% of people experience in their lifetime.
“For most people, tinnitus is mild and can be ignored, but for others, it can be quite bothersome,” said Melanie Dunne, a doctor of audiology at Banner - University Medicine Multispecialty Services Clinic in Tucson, Arizona.
There are three types of tinnitus:
- Subjective tinnitus, which is the most common and is a ringing that is perceived only by you, the person hearing it. “Ringing from subjective tinnitus can vary from mild to severe and quiet to very loud,” said Dr. Dunne;
- Objective tinnitus, a rare condition where the perceived noise is generated within the body and can be detected by your physician;
- Pulsatile tinnitus, which resembles a heartbeat and requires a medical evaluation because of its association with several medical conditions.
What Causes Tinnitus?
It’s important to know that tinnitus is not a disease in and of itself, but rather a symptom of another underlying health condition.
“In most cases, tinnitus is the brain’s reaction to damage in your ear and auditory system, and the most common cause of tinnitus is hearing loss,” said Dr. Dunne.
Age-related hearing loss typically starts around age 60 and tends to be in both ears and involve the loss of high-frequency sounds. According to Dr. Dunne, “tinnitus is very common in seniors and is often described as a high-pitched ringing.”
Exposure to loud noises, either in a single traumatic experience or exposure to loud sounds over time, is also a common cause of tinnitus and can affect one ear or both. Dr. Dunne also notes that other common causes of tinnitus include side effects from medication, wax impaction, migraines, traumatic brain injuries, tumors, ear infections and ear diseases such as Meniere’s Disease or otosclerosis.
What are the Symptoms of Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is the perception of a sound in the ear, like ringing, hissing, roaring, pulsing, whooshing, chirping, whistling, static, buzzing or clicking. Some people describe it as sounding like crickets. Tinnitus can be constant or intermittent, in one or both ears and can vary in loudness. It can also be quite bothersome, interrupting your sleep or being so loud it interferes with concentration or hearing. For the luckier ones, it can be easy to ignore and is mostly noticed at night when it’s quiet.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Tinnitus
A comprehensive hearing evaluation by doctor of audiology is your first step in evaluating tinnitus.
“Your doctor will ask you to describe your tinnitus: is it constant or intermittent, high-pitched or loud,” said Dr. Dunne. Your medical history will be taken, including your history of noise exposure, ear trauma, balance issues, hearing loss, and asking for a list of your medications.
“An otologic and audiologic assessment will then be done to help identify or rule out injury or another disease that could be causing the tinnitus, and to identify any hearing loss,” said Dr. Dunne.
The most effective treatment of tinnitus is to eliminate the underlying cause. If the cause isn’t clear, hearing aids – wearable or nonwearable devices – can assist.
Sound therapy can also be used. In sound therapy, external noises distract or mask your tinnitus symptoms. There are more alternative types of treatments involving cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT), hypnotherapy, myofascial trigger point therapy, neuromodulation, transcranial magnetic stimulation and vagus nerve stimulation.
Of course, life with tinnitus can still be full and joyous. Speak to a Banner physician, explore possibilities to overcome your hearing loss and reclaim the freedom that hearing brings. If the symptoms of tinnitus are getting you down, it’s time to consult a Banner physician about possible causes and treatment options.