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All About Tinnitus

Tinnitus is the sensation of hearing a ringing or buzzing noise in one or both ears when there is no actual (or external) sound present. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 50 million Americans experience tinnitus, making this a common health concern that people are navigating. It is important to know that tinnitus is not a medical condition in and of itself but rather, a symptom of an underlying medical condition.

Types

Tinnitus is often described as a ringing or buzzing noise but people can experience other sounds as well. This includes: whistling, hissing, chirping, clicking, and humming. These sounds can vary in volume (from quiet to loud) and duration. Tinnitus can come and go or be more constant and last longer periods of time. There are two types:

  • Subjective Tinnitus: is the most common type of tinnitus and is noise that only you can hear. This accounts for the overwhelming majority of the tinnitus that people experience.
  • Objective Tinnitus: is rare and is when the noise can be heard upon examination by a doctor. Examples of this include: hearing sounds related to having a heart murmur, muscle contractions, blood vessel damage etc.

Subjective tinnitus is more often a symptom of hearing loss.

Tinnitus and Hearing Loss

Various health conditions can cause or contribute to tinnitus. The most common cause is hearing loss. Hearing loss is a common medical condition that 1 in 8 people (age 12 and older) navigate on a daily basis. Impaired hearing can be caused by several factors such as: health conditions, genetic history, aging, and environmental exposure to loud noise.

Typically, hearing loss is the result of damage to the hair cells in the cochlea which are critical to our ability to hear and process sound. The outer ear absorbs sound from the environment which travels through the ear canal and lands on the ear drum causing it to vibrate. The movement of the eardrum and small bones in the middle ear push the soundwaves further into the inner ear causing the hair cells and fluid in the cochlea to vibrate. This allows the soundwaves to be translated into electrical impulses which the auditory nerve sends to the brain to process.

We are born with all of the hair cells (in the cochlea) that we will ever have. These hair cells (thousands in each ear) do not regenerate unlike other types of cells. When they lose sensitivity over time, this reduces their ability to translate soundwaves to electrical signals needed for the brain. This damage is permanent and causes hearing loss.

Other Causes

Tinnitus can also be caused by other issues related to the ears and health conditions. Other causes can include:

  • Buildup of earwax which can produce bacteria that irritates the eardrum (can also cause ear infections)
  • Abnormal bone growths and tumors in the ear
  • Muscle contractions or spasms in the ear
  • Head and/or neck injuries which can impact hearing nerves
  • High blood pressure
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Various medications including specific antibiotics, antidepressants, and aspirin
  • These causes are less common but share tinnitus as a symptom.

Impact

Tinnitus can be acute or chronic. According to the CDC, nearly 20 million people suffer from chronic tinnitus and 2 million people have extreme (or debilitating) tinnitus. This can significantly impact a person’s life. Chronic tinnitus can cause people to experience:

  • Difficulty sleeping due to the constant noise
  • Fatigue and exhaustion
  • Challenging time concentrating

These effects of tinnitus can further cause irritability and stress. Navigating daily life and managing responsibilities can be frustrating with tinnitus. This can take a toll on one’s mental and emotional health.

Treatment

Since tinnitus is a symptom, treatment depends on the underlying cause. Because hearing is the most prevalent cause of tinnitus, it is important to have your hearing assessed. Impaired hearing is often treated with hearing aids which work to pick up, amplify, and process sound; allowing people to hear drastically better.

Prevention

There are useful ways to reduce your risk of hearing loss.

  • Protect your ears: it is important to reduce your exposure to loud noise. You can do this by wearing earmuffs or earplugs which reduce the amount of noise you absorb.
  • Use noise cancelling headphones: which decreases the amount of environmental noise you hear, allowing you to use your headphones at regular volumes
  • Eat a balanced diet: reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and other medical conditions that can contribute to hearing loss.
Jon Suarez, MS, F/AAA
Jon Suarez, MS, F/AAA
Received his Masters in Audiology from Central Missouri State. He also holds a BS in Communication Disorders and Sciences, and a BA in Philosophy, both from SUNY Plattsburgh. Jon has been a licensed Audiologist since 2004, was certified as a Professional Supervisor for Audiometric Testing, and as an Occupational Hearing Conservationist. Aside from his work in our area, Jon is also associated with, and donates equipment to, All Ears International.
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