Millions of Americans experience tinnitus, often to a debilitating degree, making it one of the most common health conditions in the country. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that nearly 15% of the general public — over 50 million Americans — experience some form of tinnitus. Roughly 20 million people struggle with burdensome chronic tinnitus, while 2 million have extreme and debilitating cases.1
Patients with head or neck injury may have particularly loud and disturbing tinnitus (Folmer and Griest, 2003). Tinnitus due to neck injury is the most common type of "somatic tinnitus". Somatic tinnitus means that the tinnitus is coming from something other than the inner ear. Tinnitus from a clear cut inner ear disorder frequently changes loudness or pitch when one simply touches the area around the ear. This is thought to be due to somatic modulation of tinnitus. We have encountered patients who have excellent responses to cervical epidural steroids, and in persons who have both severe tinnitus and significant cervical nerve root compression, we think this is worth trying as treatment.
Most of the causes of tinnitus alter neurological activity within the auditory cortex, the portion of the brain responsible for hearing. The transmission of sound is interrupted, so some of the neural circuits fail to receive signals. Instead of causing hearing loss, as you might expect due to the lack of stimulation, the neural circuits begin chattering. First, they chatter alone. Then, they become hyperactive and synchronous. When we experience this deviation, our brains attempt to compensate for the change by interpreting the neurological activity as sound. This can resemble ringing, buzzing, hissing, whistling, or roaring, amongst a variety of other noises.
Hearing loss: Probably the most common cause for tinnitus is hearing loss. As we age, or because of trauma to the ear (through noise, drugs, or chemicals), the portion of the ear that allows us to hear, the cochlea, becomes damaged. Current theories suggest that because the cochlea is no longer sending the normal signals to the brain, the brain becomes confused and essentially develops its own noise to make up for the lack of normal sound signals. This then is interpreted as a sound, tinnitus. This tinnitus can be made worse by anything that makes our hearing worse, such as ear infections or excess wax in the ear.
Sound therapies are one method that has previously been shown to reduce the severity of tinnitus. While not all sound therapies have gone through rigorous clinical testing, they have far greater traction and adoption in the tinnitus community. There are two types of sound therapy approaches: (1) maskers that are intended to block out the tinnitus and have the patient learn to ignore their tinnitus, and (2) sound therapies that utilize the same brain plasticity that is thought to be causing the tinnitus for the purpose of reducing it. Both approaches can be delivered via electronic devices that can produce sound. There has been an increase in tinnitus maskers that are built into hearing aids. These built-in maskers generate different sounds including white noise and random tones. Unfortunately, due to their design, hearing aids are still limited to providing masking at frequencies below 8 kHz.
It can often be very helpful to talk to someone who understands how you are feeling, who can reassure you about any anxieties you may have, and answer your questions. We can provide details of self-help groups and contacts in the UK, and we also run a helpline on 0800 018 0527. Most of the people who run groups or are contacts have tinnitus themselves and have been helping people with the condition for a long time. Even if you don't want to take part in group activities, it can be a comfort to know there is someone you can contact.
When tinnitus is unexpected and unwelcomed, it can lead to a negative reaction to the tinnitus. This can create a vicious cycle. When tinnitus is perceived, it can prompt emotions, including frustration, fear, unhappiness, etc. These can, in turn, cause physical reactions such as anxiety and stress. This reinforces the tinnitus and perpetuates the cycle.
In Canada, the level of funding or engagement towards tackling the problem of tinnitus is comparably minimal. But with recent headlines about the effects of tinnitus on those in police forces2 and frustration among veterans, this may change. Because of the progress made in tinnitus treatment and management research – including work done right here in Canada – the time is right to offer tinnitus sufferers effective options and the support they need. While many with tinnitus are not yet aware that there are ways to reduce or manage the constant ringing, hissing or buzzing in their ears, as more health care professionals make effective options available, word will spread. In time, tinnitus and its impact on quality of life can be reduced.
If you have tinnitus, you might be feeling frustrated and helpless, but there is hope! The first step is to consult a hearing care professional at one of our consumer-reviewed clinics. There are also audiologists who specialize in managing tinnitus and many non-medical ways to help you regain your quality of life. Learn more through the links here and, when you’re ready, let us help you connect with a professional in your area.