If cerumen (more commonly known as ear wax) accumulates in your ear canal, it can diminish your ability to hear. Your auditory system may overcompensate for the loss, fabricating noises that do not exist. Your audiologist can safely remove the buildup, and in most cases, this will immediately alleviate your tinnitus. However, sometimes ear wax buildup causes permanent damage, resulting in chronic tinnitus.
Approximately 50 million Americans have some form of tinnitus. For most people, the sensation usually lasts only a few minutes at a time. About 12 million people have constant or recurring tinnitus that interferes with their daily life so much that they seek professional treatment. For these individuals, tinnitus may result in a loss of sleep, interfere with concentration, and create negative emotional reactions such as despair, frustration, and depression.
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").
Technology and portable music devices also contribute to noise pollution, especially in younger people. Keep the volume of your phone, MP3 players or iPod on the lower end when listening to headphones, and don’t play very loud noises for long durations of time. To aid in tinnitus treatment, look out for changes in your ability to hear if you’re frequently exposed to loud noises, limit use of headphones or consider wearing earplugs.
Limit use of earplugs. Earplugs are important to use to protect your hearing when you’re likely to be exposed to loud noises. (Remember, exposure to loud sounds, and noise-induced hearing loss, are common causes of tinnitus, and may make tinnitus worse if you already have the condition.) But otherwise, people with tinnitus are advised not to wear earplugs, including for sleep. Earplugs reduce your ability to hear external noise and can make tinnitus more noticeable.
The exact biological process by which hearing loss is associated with tinnitus is still being investigated by researchers. However, we do know that the loss of certain sound frequencies leads to specific changes in how the brain processes sound. In short, as the brain receives less external stimuli around a specific frequency, it begins to adapt and change. Tinnitus may be the brain’s way of filling in the missing sound frequencies it no longer receives from the auditory system.
Most experts refer to tinnitus as the condition that causes ringing in the ears, however other abnormal sounds and sensations can also be attributed to tinnitus. The definition of tinnitus is “the perception of noise or ringing in the ears.” Some also describe this condition as “hearing sounds in the ears when no external sound is present.” Although tinnitus is only a significant problem for about 1 percent to 5 percent of the population, up to 10 percent to 15 percent of all children and adults are believed to experience ringing in the ears at least from time to time.
Meniere’s disease isn’t directly connected to tinnitus, but people with Meniere’s often experience it, at least temporarily. Meniere's disease is an inner ear disease that typically only affects one ear. This disease can cause pressure or pain in the ear, severe cases of dizziness or vertigo and a ringing or roaring tinnitus. While Meniere’s isn’t fully understood, it appears that several relief options for tinnitus can also help with this disease. Patients are often advised to reduce stress and lower their consumption of caffeine and sodium.
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.
Additional conditions that can cause pulsatile tinnitus include arterial bruit, abnormal passages or connections between the blood vessels of the outermost layer of the membrane (dura) that covers the brain and spinal cord (dural arteriovenous shunts), or conditions that cause increased pressure within the skull such as idiopathic intracranial hypertension (pseudotumor cerebri). Sigmoid sinus dehiscence may be associated with pseudotumor, but this connection has not been firmly established. It possible that cases of pulsatile tinnitus associated with pseudotumor may be caused by an undiagnosed SSWA. Head trauma, surgery, middle ear conductive hearing loss, and certain tumors can also cause pulsatile tinnitus. Obstructions within in the vessels that connect the heart and brain can also cause pulsatile tinnitus.
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It’s the same mechanism that’s happening in people who feel a phantom limb sensation after losing a limb, explains Susan Shore, PhD, a professor of otolaryngology, molecular physiology, and biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. With tinnitus the loss of hearing causes specific brain neurons to increase their activity as a way of compensating, she explains. “These neurons also synchronize their activity as they would if there were a sound there, but there is no external sound,” she adds.
Atherosclerosis. With age and buildup of cholesterol and other deposits, major blood vessels close to your middle and inner ear lose some of their elasticity — the ability to flex or expand slightly with each heartbeat. That causes blood flow to become more forceful, making it easier for your ear to detect the beats. You can generally hear this type of tinnitus in both ears.