Tinnitus is the subjective experience of hearing a sound when there is no external physical sound present. It is typically experienced as head noises or ear ringing and can be described in a variety of ways: hissing, chirping, buzzing, roaring, high-pitched ring, etc.
Tinnitus is a very common problem. According to various studies, tinnitus affects 10-17% of the general population. This means that approximately 44 million Americans experience tinnitus to some degree. Prevalence is even greater in the elderly population. Approximately 30% of people over 65 years of age experience tinnitus. For some people, tinnitus is just a nuisance. For others, it is a life-altering condition.
Almost anything that can go wrong with the ear can have tinnitus associated with it as a symptom. Problems can range from impacted cerumen to acoustic tumors. Exposure to excessively loud sounds is certainly one of the most common causes in our veteran population. Problems not associated with the ear can also cause tinnitus including head injury, disorders of the neck vertebrae and/or temporomandibular joint (TMJ). Cardiovascular disease, allergies, Mèniére’s disease, underactive thyroid, various middle ear pathologies, and more than 200 prescription and non-prescription drugs can also be a factor.
It is important to know that the presence of tinnitus does not mean that one is going deaf. Tinnitus indicates there is some damage to the auditory system however it is sometimes present even for individuals with hearing that is considered to be normal. Tinnitus does not cause hearing loss, and hearing loss cannot cause tinnitus, despite the fact that the two often co-exist.
There are some things known to aggravate tinnitus and should be avoided when possible:
- Loud noise: Avoid all forms of loud sound. If
you must be exposed, use ear protection such as plugs or muffs. It
is even important to wear hearing protection when mowing the lawn, using power
tools, guns, motorcycles, etc.
- Alcohol: Many patients find tinnitus is worse after the use of alcohol.
- Caffeine: Avoid caffeine found in coffee, tea, chocolate, and cola drinks for one month to determine whether or not it has an adverse effect on your tinnitus.
- Nicotine: Smoking may make tinnitus worse because nicotine restricts blood flow.
- Aspirin and other medications: Check with your physician to recommend substitutes or regulate dosage if you notice an increase in tinnitus while taking medication.
- Stress: Reducing stress will enable you to better cope with tinnitus.
Several forms of treatment are available to assist individuals for whom tinnitus has become bothersome. The first step would be to obtain a complete medical history of the tinnitus sufferer in order to determine whether there is a medical condition for which treatment would relieve the symptoms. For most individuals there is no serious medical problem causing their tinnitus.
Clinical Masking: Amplification or the use of hearing aids is often the most effective method in reducing or limiting tinnitus only if hearing aids are warranted. For individuals who are not hearing aid candidates, masking devices may provide benefit. Masking devices look much like a hearing aid or box radio. Instead of amplifying sound, they produce a band of noise, which can be placed in to the patient’s ear. The idea behind masking units is that they provide a more tolerable sound than tinnitus. These devices can be ear-level to be worn throughout the day or bedside maskers for use at night. Tabletop maskers often use a variety of environmental sounds to soothe the listener.
Biofeedback: This is a relaxation process that has proven effective in controlling headaches and is now being used with tinnitus patients. It helps reduce stress and lessens the noticeable effects of tinnitus. It allows the individual to control his or her heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and muscle tension. Other relaxation methods include yoga and meditation.
Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT): This relatively new
treatment approach attempts to habituate the patient to the tinnitus. This
means that the patient becomes no longer aware of and annoyed by the tinnitus. TRT
typically uses sound generators and directive counseling to achieve the treatment
goal. The treatment can last as long as 18-24 months.
We are currently offering a quarterly Tinnitus Informational Class (at Seattle and American Lake). The class includes a variety of information pertaining to the possible causes of tinnitus, exacerbating factors, TRT principles, and treatment strategies. The class lasts approximately 2 hours. If you are interested in this very informative session, please call Karen, our Program Assistant, at 1-800-329-8387 ext. 62404 or directly at 206-764-2404 for the specific date, time, and location of our next class.
Although tinnitus is very real, the actual cause or mechanism that creates the disorder is often unknown. Do not give up hope, new solutions to tinnitus are being discovered all the time. Here is a list of resources, which may be of interest.
The Tinnitus and Hyperacusis Website
The Oregon Health Sciences University Tinnitus Center Website
The University of Maryland Tinnitus and Hyperacusis Center Website
1660 South Columbian Way
Seattle, WA 98108