Tinnitus (pronounced "tin-it-tus") is an abnormal noise in the ear (note that it is not an "itis" -- which means inflammation). Tinnitus is common -- nearly 36 million Americans have constant tinnitus and more than half of the normal population has intermittent tinnitus. Another way to summarize this is that about 10-15% of the entire population has some type of constant tinnitus, and about 20% of these people (i.e. about 1% of the population) seek medical attention (Adjamian et al, 2009). Similar statistics are found in England (Dawes et al, 2014) and Korea (Park and Moon, 2014).
Most tinnitus is subjective, meaning that only you can hear the noise. But sometimes it's objective, meaning that someone else can hear it, too. For example, if you have a heart murmur, you may hear a whooshing sound with every heartbeat; your clinician can also hear that sound through a stethoscope. Some people hear their heartbeat inside the ear — a phenomenon called pulsatile tinnitus. It's more likely to happen in older people, because blood flow tends to be more turbulent in arteries whose walls have stiffened with age. Pulsatile tinnitus may be more noticeable at night, when you're lying in bed and there are fewer external sounds to mask the tinnitus. If you notice any new pulsatile tinnitus, you should consult a clinician, because in rare cases it is a sign of a tumor or blood vessel damage.
Every person living with tinnitus hears a unique sound. The sound can be a low or high frequency, and its volume and pitch may change over time, with the severity varying from person to person. Those with acute tinnitus may struggle to sleep, focus at work, or communicate with others. In such cases, treatment plays a crucial role in helping an individual regain control of his or her life.
The majority of cases of tinnitus are subjective. Objective tinnitus is far less common. However, a diagnosis of objective tinnitus is tied to how hard and well the objective (outside) listener tries to hear the sound in question. Because of this problem, some clinicians now simply refer to tinnitus as either rhythmic or non-rhythmic. Generally, rhythmic tinnitus correlates with objective tinnitus and non-rhythmic tinnitus correlates with subjective tinnitus. Specific forms of tinnitus such as pulsatile tinnitus and muscular tinnitus, which are forms of rhythmic tinnitus, are relatively rare. Pulsatile tinnitus may also be known as pulse-synchronous tinnitus. Properly identifying and distinguishing these less common forms of tinnitus is important because the underlying cause of pulsatile or muscular tinnitus can often be identified and treated.
The patients were assessed at the start of the study for their hearing ability and the severity of their tinnitus. The researchers assessed the degree of severity using established questionnaires, which looked at health-related quality of life, the psychological distress associated with tinnitus and how far it impaired their functioning. Using this information, researchers divided participants into four groups ranked on the severity of their condition.
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Sound therapy can be effective in treating tinnitus because it may make the tinnitus less noticeable or mask the tinnitus or fade tinnitus. Hearing aids are included as a critical component of a sound therapy program. Modern hearing aids come with a special tinnitus managing sounds along with digital amplification. They are much evolved over the older technology. Different products work in different ways, although most hearing aids can alleviate tinnitus, certain hearing aids have built-in technology specifically for tinnitus relief. At amplifon, we have a clearly defined way to measure and quantify chronic tinnitus. As per the severity of the problem, an appropriate combination of treatment methods is selected to deal with your tinnitus. Amplifon audiologists are specially trained in counselling procedures as well which is another critical element of sound therapy. Consult your Amplifon audiologist to find more details about what suits you to deal with your tinnitus problem.
Tinnitus also could be the result of neural circuits thrown out of balance when damage in the inner ear changes signaling activity in the auditory cortex, the part of the brain that processes sound. Or it could be the result of abnormal interactions between neural circuits. The neural circuits involved in hearing aren’t solely dedicated to processing sound. They also communicate with other parts of the brain, such as the limbic region, which regulates mood and emotion.
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.
Hyperacusis is a different, but related condition to tinnitus. People with hyperacusis have a high sensitivity to common, everyday environmental noise. In particular, sharp and high-pitched sounds are very difficult for people with hyperacusis to tolerate—sounds like the screeching of brakes, a baby crying or a dog barking, a sink full of dishes and silverware clanging. Many people with tinnitus also experience hyperacusis—but the two conditions don’t always go together.
Herbal home remedies (ginkgo biloba, melatonin), and the vitamin zinc are not recommended by the American Academy of Otolaryngology. Lipo-flavonoid is a supplement being marketed as a way to relieve tinnitus, but there is no current evidence it is effective for most cases of the condition; however, it may be helpful for symptoms of Meniere's disease. Check with your doctor or other health care professional before taking any herbal or over-the-counter (OTC) natural remedies.
Practice mindfulness meditation. I’ve written about the power of mindfulness mediation to reduce stress and improve sleep. A 2017 study found mindfulness meditation is also effective in helping people better manage tinnitus. Mindfulness meditation involves sitting comfortably, putting your attention on your natural breathing. When your mind wanders—to irritating tinnitus sounds, to worry about sleep, or wherever else it goes, gently return your attention to your breath. Start with a 5-minute session, and as you grow more comfortable with the practice, you can increase the time. You can practice mindfulness meditation anywhere, at any time of day—including in the shower!
If you develop tinnitus, it's important to see your clinician. She or he will take a medical history, give you a physical examination, and do a series of tests to try to find the source of the problem. She or he will also ask you to describe the noise you're hearing (including its pitch and sound quality, and whether it's constant or periodic, steady or pulsatile) and the times and places in which you hear it. Your clinician will review your medical history, your current and past exposure to noise, and any medications or supplements you're taking. Tinnitus can be a side effect of many medications, especially when taken at higher doses (see "Some drugs that can cause or worsen tinnitus").
If the source of the problem remains unclear, you may be sent to an otologist or an otolaryngologist (both ear specialists) or an audiologist (a hearing specialist) for hearing and nerve tests. As part of your examination, you may be given a hearing test called an audiogram. An imaging technique, such as an MRI or a CT scan, may also be recommended to reveal any structural problem.
The latest news about tinnitus treatment comes from a UK study showing that Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) significantly helps reduce the severity of the disorder. The researchers reported that, among the 75 patients being studied, both relaxation therapy and MBCT worked to alleviate symptoms as well as reducing psychological distress, anxiety and depression related to the disorder. MBCT led to greater reductions in tinnitus severity and the improvements lasted longer.
Although there’s no proven cure for tinnitus, there are treatments that help make it easier to ignore. For example, you can wear devices in your ear(s) that produce soothing therapeutic noises to shift your focus away from the tinnitus. Other devices produce constant, soft noise to mask the tinnitus. Tinnitus sufferers who also have hearing loss sometimes find relief simply by wearing properly fitted hearing aids.