For a condition that afflicts 15 to 20 percent of people worldwide, it is remarkable how few people understand tinnitus. You might have heard about the condition, but it is much more widely known under the common name “ringing in the ears.” Although tinnitus can take form as a ringing sound, it can also seem more like humming, buzzing, roaring, clicking, or hissing, depending on the individual. What distinguishes tinnitus is that the sound does not originate outside the body. Instead, something in the anatomy of the body, the inner ear, or the auditory nervous system gives the sensation of sound even when nothing outside the body is creating it. Let’s take a walk through the common experiences of tinnitus, what might cause it, as well as the treatment opportunities that are developing.
Types of Tinnitus
Many people have had a temporary experience of ringing in their ears, perhaps after attending a concert, loud club, or sporting event, but they might not receive a diagnosis of tinnitus. For those who truly have tinnitus, the experience is prolonged. There are two main types of tinnitus, and they are defined by the location within the body in which the sound occurs. Some people have objective tinnitus, which is caused by a sound made by a part of the body other than the ears. Bone clicking and cardiovascular issues can cause objective tinnitus, but these conditions are much less common than subjective tinnitus. Subjective tinnitus occurs when the tiny hairlike organelles of the inner ear called stereocilia are bent, broken, or otherwise damaged. This damage can take the form of hearing loss, effectively turning off the body’s ability to sense that particular frequency. However, that bending, breaking, or damage can also effectively turn on the sensation of that frequency, leading to subjective tinnitus. Only the person with the condition will be able to hear that sound, and it tends not to go away with time.
Causes of Tinnitus
Exposure to noise is the most common cause of tinnitus. Similar to hearing loss, too much pressure from sound can cause damage to the stereocilia, leading to the constant sound emanating through the auditory nervous system. Other conditions can cause subjective tinnitus, as well. Exposure to ototoxic chemicals or medications can cause damage to the stereocilia, including the necessary treatments in chemotherapy. An ear infection or other bacterial condition can cause tinnitus, as well. Common causes of objective tinnitus include changes in the bones of the ear, muscle spasms surrounding the ear, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders, and injuries to the head and neck. Although the causes of objective tinnitus can be quite serious, they can also lead to a cure for tinnitus in more cases. The causes of subjective tinnitus that lead to stereocilia damage tend to be permanent, but treatment options do exist.
Treatment for Tinnitus
People with chronic tinnitus go to great lengths to mask the sound emanating from within their bodies. Fans and quiet televisions can be a good way to mask the sound of tinnitus, particularly when a person finds it difficult to sleep, but these sounds can be disturbing to others. White noise machines are available widely to supply a complex blend of frequencies that might match up with the sound of tinnitus and effectively cancel out those sounds. However, these white noise machines are a blunt instrument to try to mask all frequencies, and they can also be disturbing to others, particularly in the quiet of night.
The best treatment for tinnitus is achieved through consultation with one of our hearing health professionals. Many of the latest hearing aids are also equipped to produce specific frequencies of sound that can mask the prolonged tones you hear. Rather than providing a very broad spectrum of sound for everyone to hear, these individualized sound profiles are played directly to your ears only in the frequencies you need, creating a seemingly quiet environment.
Although these treatments don’t work for all experiences of tinnitus, the technology is developing more with each new model of hearing aid that is released. If you are interested in pursuing treatment, the first step will be for you to have a hearing test and to consult with one of our professionals.