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That Ringing in Your Ears: What Is Tinnitus?

By Carolyn Heneghan January 30, 2016 Posted in: Personal Health , Article

What is tinnitus, you ask? If you've ever heard a ringing in your ears or something similar where you perceive sound but no actual external noise is present, you've experienced tinnitus firsthand. Tinnitus is one of the most common health conditions in the U.S., with about 15 percent of the general public having some type of tinnitus, according to the CDC.

What Is Tinnitus?

While tinnitus is most often referred to as a ringing in the ears, that sound can take a wide range of forms, including buzzing, hissing, whistling, swooshing, clicking, and -- in some rare cases -- music. Tinnitus is often an acute (or temporary) condition, but it can also be chronic, as roughly 20 million Americans can attest.

The American Tinnitus Association (ATA) describes two types of tinnitus:

  • Subjective tinnitus. Noises only the individual patient can hear, usually caused by auditory and neurological reactions to hearing loss or other catalysts. (Occurs in more than 99 percent of cases.)
  • Objective tinnitus. Noises that both the patient and other people can hear, usually caused by internal functions in the body's circulatory (blood flow) and somatic (musculoskeletal movement) systems. (Occurs in less than 1 percent of cases.)

Commonly associated with subjective tinnitus is tonal tinnitus, which means the perceived sound is near-continuous or overlapping with well-defined frequencies. The volume of the tinnitus can also fluctuate. Objective and somatic tinnitus are often associated with pulsatile tinnitus, or perceiving sounds that often pulse along with the patient's heartbeat.

Causes of Tinnitus

Tinnitus itself is not a disease. Instead, it's a symptom of any one of 200 different underlying conditions. It is most often triggered by hearing loss, whether age-related or noise-induced. How exactly hearing loss leads to tinnitus is still unclear, but researchers believe it could be "the brain's way of filling in the missing sound frequencies it no longer receives from the auditory system," according to the ATA.

Tinnitus can be caused by a wide range of other conditions, as well:

  • Obstructions in the middle ear (excessive earwax, head congestion, or a foreign object).
  • Head and neck trauma.
  • Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ).
  • Sinus pressure (caused by a severe cold, flu, or sinus infection).
  • Barometric trauma (rapid changes to air or water pressure, such as from scuba diving).
  • Traumatic brain injury.
  • Ototoxic medications (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, certain antibiotics, certain cancer medications, etc.).

Treating Tinnitus

Currently, tinnitus does not have a defined cure, but there are treatments that can improve quality of life for tinnitus sufferers. Treatments do not necessarily eliminate the tinnitus sounds or repair the underlying cause, but they can relieve the attentional, emotional, and cognitive burden of tinnitus for a patient:

  • General wellness. Maintaining good health improves people's perceived intensity of their tinnitus. This can be achieved through a combination of a healthy diet, exercise, social experiences, recreational activities/hobbies, stress reduction, and using hearing protection (such as earplugs and other sound mufflers).
  • Hearing aids. These can increase external noise to the point that it overpowers tinnitus, thereby helping the brain focus on external rather than internal noises.
  • Sound therapy. This uses external noises to change a person's perception of tinnitus sounds. Different sound-therapy approaches include masking, distraction, habituation, and neuromodulation.

Tinnitus can range from bothersome to frightening, but if you're suffering from tinnitus, you're not alone. Talk to your doctor to figure out the best way to reduce your tinnitus symptoms and improve your quality of life.

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