What is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is a ringing, roaring, chirping, hissing, or another other type of noise that seems to originate in the ear or the head. This is a common problem that affects 1 in 5 people. In many cases, it is not a serious problem, but rather a nuisance that eventually resolves. In some cases, the tinnitus can persist and even change over time. Rarely does tinnitus represent a serious health condition; however, it should be evaluated by an otolaryngologist and audiologist.
Tinnitus is not a disease but a symptom of an underlying condition. Nearly 36 million Americans suffer from this disorder. In almost all cases, only the patient can hear the noise.
Tinnitus can arise in any of the following areas: the outer ear, the middle ear, the inner ear, or by abnormalities in the brain. Tinnitus can be caused by ear wax, a foreign body in the canal, or anything that blocks the ear canal. Fluid, infection or diseases of the middle ear bones or ear drum can also cause tinnitus.
One of the most common causes of tinnitus is hearing loss or damage to the inner ear. Today, exposure to loud noise is a very common cause of tinnitus and often damages hearing as well.
Some medications (for example, aspirin) and other diseases of the inner ear (Meniere’s disease) can cause tinnitus. Tinnitus can in very rare situations be a symptom of a brain aneurysm or a tumor (Acoustic neuroma). Tinnitus has also been associated with TMJ, sleep disorders, head and neck injury, heart disease and anxiety.
The otolaryngologist will take a thorough medical history and perform a physical examination of your ears. It is helpful to discuss with your physician the tinnitus as well as other symptoms such as fullness, hearing loss, dizziness, or other ear symptoms. In addition, provide the doctor with a description of the tinnitus, onset of the symptom, and medications you are taking. Routinely a hearing evaluation will be ordered by the physician to determine if there is hearing loss. The hearing test should be performed by an audiologist in sound booth. In some cases, additional testing may need to be ordered to further evaluate the auditory system.
Treatment options include:
- Tinnitus Masking: Masking is a treatment where a sound is introduced to cover up or reduce the perceived volume of the tinnitus. A masker can be as simple as turning on a radio, TV, or fan.
- Custom Tinnitus Masker: Custom tinnitus maskers, that look like a hearing aid can be worn daily. A custom tinnitus masker typically emits a white or pink noise.
- Hearing Aid: Hearing aids are often a first treatment option when hearing loss is found along with the tinnitus.
- Lifestyle and Dietary Changes: Decreasing caffeine, stress, exercise, and relaxation techniques can be used as a coping mechanism.
- Herbal Treatment: Consult your physician to discuss if herbal treatment may be an option for you. Note: Herbal treatments may interfere with prescription medication so always consult your physician before trying an herbal treatment.
- Tinnitus Apps: Smart phones have made it easy to stream or dock your device to provide accessible free tinnitus maskers.
We recommend trying the following tinnitus apps, listed below, to determine if there is a sound that helps to mask (cover) your tinnitus. (Apps can be found at iTunes or Google Play.)
Once you find the right sound, it is recommended that you adjust the volume to below the level to completely cover the tinnitus. Make sure the level is less than 50% of the volume setting in your device to protect your ears from potentially damaging “loud” sounds. Gradually over time, you should be able to decrease the volume of the masker and still manage the tinnitus.