If you’ve ever been to a loud concert, you probably noticed your ears ringing after the show. Sounds that are produced inside your head rather than from an outside source are known as tinnitus.
Tinnitus can take on many different forms, including ringing, clicking, roaring, hissing, buzzing, or whistling. These sounds may be very high pitched, or may sound more like a low roar and they may appear in just one or both ears. For some people, tinnitus comes and goes while others report it being there all the time. The American Tinnitus Association estimates that over 50 million Americans have experienced tinnitus. For many, it’s the temporary ringing in the ears after a concert but for approximately 12 million, tinnitus is an on-going and annoying problem.
Causes of tinnitus
Tinnitus is considered to be more a symptom than an actual illness. Tinnitus is sometimes the result of problems with the tiny hairs inside the inner ear that transmit sounds from the ear to the auditory nerve. When these hairs are damaged, they may create false sounds that are transmitted to the brain as the ringing or buzzing of tinnitus. For many people, one of these conditions is the cause of tinnitus:
• Loud noises – Being around loud noises for an extended time can damage your ability to hear. Firearms, loud equipment, and even music played loudly on an MP3 player or iPod can cause hearing loss if experienced for long periods of time.
• Old age – For many people over age 60, the ability to hear may gradually decline. This kind of hearing loss can also cause tinnitus. This is not to say only older people have tinnitus. People of all ages, including children, can experience tinnitus.
• Excess ear wax – When ear wax accumulates in the ear canal, it can cause a blockage that can cause tinnitus and other problems with hearing.
• Ear bone damage – In some cases, the bones in the middle ear can stiffen and lose their ability to transmit sounds. This condition can be caused by abnormal bone growth, and can also cause tinnitus.
While these are the most common causes of tinnitus, there are a number of other causes that are reported less frequently:
• Meniere’s disease – This inner ear disorder that can damage hearing is believed to be caused by abnormal fluid pressure inside the ear.
• Stress or depression
• Head or neck injuries – Damage to the nerves in the head or neck often causes tinnitus in only one ear.
• Tumors – Abnormal growths around the nerves in the head may cause tinnitus in just one ear.
• Blood vessel disorders –Anything that affects the flow of blood through the head and around the ears may cause tinnitus. This can include high blood pressure and artherosclerosis.
• Medications – Certain antibiotics, some cancer medications, diuretics, medicines to treat malaria, and very high doses of aspirin are all known to cause tinnitus.
While tinnitus is mostly commonly seen in older adults, anyone can get tinnitus. Other possible risk factors include being male or Caucasian, having age-related hearing loss, or extensive exposure to loud noise without ear protection. Children are also known to have tinnitus, although they often don’t complain about it because they don’t realize the sounds they hear are not normal.
There is no cure for tinnitus, but there are treatments for other conditions that may cause tinnitus. Your doctor will try to determine what is causing your tinnitus in order to treat it. You may also be referred to an otolaryngologist, or ear, nose and throat doctor for further evaluation. Possible treatments include:
• Hearing aids – Many people with tinnitus also have hearing loss. Using a hearing aid can improve your ability to hear the sounds you chose, which will help you disregard your tinnitus.
• Maskers – These small electronic devises help make tinnitus less noticeable by creating other sounds to mask the sounds of tinnitus. Listening to static at a low volume on the radio is also sometimes effective, and can help if tinnitus makes it difficult to fall asleep.
• Medicines or drug therapy – Certain medicines may reduce tinnitus symptoms.
• Retraining therapy – Using a combination of counseling and maskers may help you learn to make your tinnitus less noticeable and less annoying.
Help at home
There are also things you can do at home to help ease the symptoms of tinnitus:
• Avoid loud sounds that can make tinnitus worse
• Keep high blood pressure under control
• Use less salt
• Avoid stimulants including coffee, tea, soda and tobacco
• Exercise to improve your circulation
• Get enough rest
• Try not to worry. Tinnitus is an annoying problem, but relaxing and learning to ignore it can help ease your symptoms.