What is tinnitus?

Put simply, tinnitus is the perception of sound in the ears or head where no external source is present. Some call it "ringing in the ears" or "head noise." You may be new to the experience of tinnitus, or you may have been suffering with it for a long time. This condition affects 1 in 5 people.

Tinnitus is pronounced either ti-NIGHT-us or TIN-i-tus. Both pronunciations are correct. The word is of Latin origin, meaning "to ring or tinkle like a bell." In almost all cases, tinnitus is a subjective noise, meaning that only the person who has tinnitus can hear it. People describe hearing different sounds: ringing, hissing, static, crickets, screeching, whooshing, roaring, pulsing, ocean waves, buzzing, dial tones, even music.

There are two types of tinnitus: Subjective tinnitus; sounds only you can hear, which is most common. Objective tinnitus; head or ear noises audible to other people as well as the patient.

What causes tinnitus?

Although there have been tremendous advances through research on what is known about the auditory (hearing) system, the exact physiological cause or causes of tinnitus are not known. There are, however, several likely sources, all of which are known to trigger or worsen tinnitus.

  • Noise exposure - called cilia, in the inner ear. Once damaged, these hair cells cannot be renewed or replaced.
  • Head and neck trauma - Physical trauma to the head and neck can induce tinnitus. Other symptoms include headaches, vertigo, and memory loss.
  • Certain disorders, such as hypo- or hyperthyroidism. Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, and thoracic outlet syndrome, can have tinnitus as a symptom. When tinnitus is a symptom of another disorder, treating the disorder can help alleviate the tinnitus.
  • Certain types of tumors
  • Wax build-up
  • Jaw misalignment
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Ototoxicity - some medications are ototoxic (toxic to the ear). Other medications will produce tinnitus as a side effect without damaging the inner ear. Effects, which can depend on the dosage of the medication, can be temporary or permanent. Before taking any medication, make sure that your prescribing physician is aware of your tinnitus, and discuss alternative medications that may be available. There are websites that provide information on drug interactions. Two popular resources for this are Drugwatch.com and the Physicians Desktop Reference websites.
  • Pulsatile tinnitus - rare type of tinnitus that sounds like a rhythmic pulsing in the ear, typically in time with one's heartbeat. This kind of tinnitus can be caused by abnormal blood flow in the arteries or veins close to the inner ear, brain tumors or irregularities in brain structure.

Protect Yourself from Tinnitus

Read about the risks of loud noise and how you can avoid damage to your ears. Learn how to properly insert and wear earplugs. Music is both magical and menacing. For many people, loud music causes tinnitus. Most at risk are: music lovers with the volume cranked up on their MP3 players, home or car stereo systems or CD players.

Can anything be done to treat and manage my tinnitus now while we all wait and hope for a cure?

The simple answer is yes. This is why we stress the importance of discussing your particular tinnitus situation with a qualified professional at Southwest Ohio ENT Specialists or Hillcrest Hearing & Balance Center.

Amplification - Some tinnitus patients with hearing loss experience total or partial tinnitus relief while wearing hearing aids. There are many variables that determine success. However, if a patient has a hearing loss in the frequency range of the tinnitus, hearing aids may bring back in the ambient sounds that naturally cover the tinnitus.

Sound Therapy - Various treatment strategies use sound to decrease the loudness or prominence of tinnitus. Sound therapies include both wearable (hearing aid-like devices) and non-wearable devices (such as table-top sound machines or even a whirring fan). Often, sound is used to completely or partially cover the tinnitus. Some people refer to this covering of sound as masking. Sound therapies should always be combined with counseling.

For an in-depth look at Tinnitus, please refer to the American Tinnitus Association website at www.ata.org

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