For such a loud issue, it’s fairly silent in the amount of attention it gets. Tinnitus is a very real problem for a large portion of the population, but has only gotten the spotlight more recently, perhaps because of a few very famous musicians who have opened up about their own experiences with the condition.
In reality, tinnitus impacts about 20 percent of people and is most often found in older adults.
What is tinnitus?
Colloquially referred to as a ‘ringing in the ears,’ the experience of tinnitus can be exactly that. It is defined as the perception of sound when none is objectively present. Some people hear ringing, others hear buzzing sounds. Still more people report that their tinnitus presents as roaring, clicking, humming or hissing. The sound itself is unimportant, what matters is that the sound seems very real to you, though no external source for that sound exists.
Many folks live with tinnitus as a mere annoyance, and yet, for millions of people the symptoms can be debilitating. Suffers of tinnitus often report fatigue, stress and sleep problems. Their attention to detail and ability to focus disintegrates.
Causes of tinnitus
Tinnitus is not a condition in and of itself, instead it is the symptom of another underlying condition. So while there is no cure for tinnitus, treating this underlying condition may improve or even stop symptoms. Sometimes, a buildup of earwax can cause people to experience symptoms of tinnitus. In these cases, removal of the ear wax results in a restoration of normal hearing.
Certain medications, as ototoxic drugs are harmful to the ear, and they may result in tinnitus. Taken in extreme doses, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen may have this result. A return to normal hearing varies among people affected by these symptoms.
Circulatory issues or an underlying blood vessel problem can also cause tinnitus. The US Veterans Administration reports that about 60 percent of their tinnitus cases result from traumatic brain injuries. Tinnitus is the leading reason for disability among veterans.
But perhaps the most common cause of tinnitus is hearing loss due to aging or exposure to excessive noise.
The link between tinnitus and hearing loss
We know that age-related and noise-induced hearing loss happens when stereocilia, the tiny hair cells located within the inner ear deteriorate or are damaged. These cells receive noise and translate it into sound information to be processed in the brain. When we lose access to them, we send the brain less sound information and we hear less.
Approximately 90 percent of people with tinnitus also have hearing loss. Experts are not certain as to why this link exists, but they think that when the brain doesn’t receive the sound information it is used to getting, it reorganizes itself and may produce the tinnitus symptoms in response.
Effective treatments of tinnitus
Many cases of tinnitus resolve by treating the underlying condition. In other cases, technologies can be used to mask the persistent annoyance of sound. Symptoms of tinnitus may be relieved simply by wearing hearing aids to treat hearing loss. However, some hearing aids also come with a program that amplifies white noise into the ear in order to mask the tinnitus sounds. This can bring a great deal of relief for people who live with more severe symptoms.
Other people may incorporate mindfulness practices, like meditation or yoga, into their lives to help them live peacefully with their tinnitus. Still others supplement their treatment by engaging in Cognitive behavioral therapy. Again, these modalities do not cure tinnitus, however, they can make the experience of living with the condition bearable.
How to protect yourself from tinnitus
In order to give yourself a better chance of avoiding tinnitus in your future, develop a plan for healthy hearing. This can be a plan that is as simple as learning about volume awareness, so that your personal rules around volume fall within healthy guidelines. Keep all volumes, at home, on devices and in the car no louder than halfway to maximum and never exceed two-thirds of maximum volume. You can also make the choice to prioritize your hearing health by scheduling hearing exams every three to five years.