Tinnitus is an almost entirely subjective ailment. There are no bruises, rashes, or bumps – it’s entirely up to the sufferer to determine if they have it, and how bad it is. It can’t even be seen through complicated medical scanning.
You or a loved one may have tinnitus, and it may be anywhere between minor enough to ignore, or major enough to cause serious problems or health concerns. If this is the case, it might be worth using this link to arrange a free consultation with a hearing specialist near you. There you can discuss the condition, and possible routes to treat it.
What is tinnitus?
But let’s back up a bit and ask: what is tinnitus? It’s very possible that you’ve never met someone with tinnitus, giving you little to no grasp of what the condition really entails.
To put it simply, tinnitus can be a:
The problem is that these sounds can only be heard by the individual afflicted by it. If you don’t have tinnitus, but would like to understand it, picture this:
You know when it’s really quiet, like when you’re in an empty room in a house in the middle of nowhere, and you can hear a faint ringing in your ears simply because there’s no other sound? That’s a pretty solid analogue to the sensation of tinnitus, with one difference.
When you’re in this quiet room and the wind starts to rattle the windows or someone starts to talk, the ringing vanishes. This is not the case with tinnitus – and if it’s a bad enough case, it can even drown out other noises.
Types of tinnitus
The most common type of tinnitus is subjective tinnitus, which as the name would imply, can only be experienced by the individual suffering from it. This makes up for 99% of all cases, and covers the whole scope of buzzing, ringing, whistling, etc. After all, the noise that one experiences throughout their tinnitus doesn’t change anything – they all fall under the exact same element.
Remember in the intro when we said that tinnitus is almost entirely subjective? That’s because there is one rare form of tinnitus that is not. Objective tinnitus affects only 1% of patients, and can be softly heard by someone else if they were to put their ear next to the patient’s.
Now that we’ve established what tinnitus is, it’d be a fair question to ask what causes it. If we know that, we can know how to avoid making it worse, or being afflicted by it in the first place.
While people can suffer hearing loss from a variety of different causes, one of the more common causes is noise-induction, and a common symptom of noise-induced hearing loss is tinnitus. In fact, 90% of tinnitus cases are coupled with noise-induced hearing loss.
Almost everyone has experienced ringing in their ears after a night out at a concert or nightclub.
If you haven’t, firstly, well done for taking care of your ears. Secondly, to help you imagine it, think of a scene in a movie where something explodes or crashes near the hero, and all the sound in the movie is overtaken by a high-pitched ringing noise. Can you picture it? That’s a decent emulation of short-term tinnitus.
This is a form of temporary tinnitus, as your ears have sustained short-term damage. Do enough damage, however, and you risk sustaining permanent tinnitus.
But noise isn’t the only way to cause tinnitus. It may be a symptom of various other issues, such as:
- Earwax or other blockage
- Middle ear disorders – otosclerosis or ear infections
- Ototoxic medications (substances that are toxic to the ear,) such as aspirin
- High or low blood pressure
- Other specific aural health conditions (TMJ syndrome, Meniere’s Disease, acoustic neuroma, tonic tensor tympani syndrome)
So we’ve established that these conditions can cause tinnitus, but we haven’t really gone into how they cause tinnitus, or what tinnitus means beyond a ringing in your ear.
Biologically, tinnitus is a signal from your brain, telling you that your ears are damaged. In the case of hearing loss, when the amount of stimulation reaching your ears is reduced, your tinnitus will make up for the lack of stimulation and produce its own noise.
What’s the worry? Is tinnitus dangerous?
So tinnitus causes a ringing in your ear – is there a problem with that? “I can just grin and bear it, and eventually I’ll just psychologically ignore it.” Well, maybe if it’s a minor enough case, you might be able to live with it – but even an average case of tinnitus can have repercussions.
Tinnitus is connected to the limbic system, which is the part of the brain that controls emotions. Because of this, a severe bout can cause anxiety and restlessness. And in turn, tinnitus may flare up if the patient is stressed, tired, or worried, which could only make it worse.
At the very least, tinnitus isn’t a deceptive health problem. What you see (or hear) is what you get – other than the noise in your ear, there are no other symptoms that come alongside tinnitus.
Tinnitus can, however, lead to (or be paired with) more intrusive conditions. These range from things as seemingly minor as dizziness and more stress, to serious health concerns like sleep disorders, further hearing loss, hyperacusis (debilitating sensitivity to noise,) or even depression.
Here’s a nice and simple way of diagnosing yourself: if you can hear any kind of persistent ringing, humming, or buzzing that other people can’t, then you almost definitely have tinnitus.
The tricky thing is, like we said earlier, there’s no objective measures a specialist can take to confirm or deny the existence of a patient’s condition. This means that all tinnitus diagnoses are subjective. We will note that this does not mean they are untrustworthy – simply that they rely on honest input from the patient. These diagnoses can include:
- Basic questions about the impact and intensity of your ringing
- Volume and pitch matching, to get a scope of the kind of sound you’re experiencing
- “Minimum masking level” – a test to see how much white noise is needed to cover (or “mask”) your tinnitus
- A basic hearing test, to see if your condition is part of a sustained hearing loss
Tinnitus relief and treatment
Since tinnitus has various causes, treatment can take various forms. For example, the form of tinnitus that is easiest to handle would be due to an overabundance of earwax. A simple removal of wax would be enough to remedy this situation.
In most cases of tinnitus, however, a cure is impossible, and it can only be treated to reduce the impact on the patient’s day to day life. Some of these treatment options are:
- Neurostimulation: using small electric shocks to stimulate the brain
- Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy: the version of therapy we see in movies and television. The patient discusses any stressors or problems from their past with a professional in order to reduce stress or anxiety
- Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS): a form of brain stimulation where a small magnetic field is moved around the head to trigger and alter electric currents in the brain
Some of these may do the trick and minimize tinnitus’ influence, but it may be the case that none of them do. There’s no way of knowing until a medical professional performs a full assessment.
So that was the medical angle of tinnitus treatment, but what can you do in your everyday life to avoid making your tinnitus worse, or even help calm it down?
The nature of tinnitus means that it’s more obvious and bothersome in quiet environments, due to the lack of noise that could mask the ringing sound. This would clearly have its biggest effect on sleep, when most people seek a quiet environment.
A simple workaround to this is to enrich the quietness of the environment with gentle white noise. Whether this is a running fan or a YouTube video of rainforest noises, any kind of sound will help drown out your tinnitus.
It is also thought that caffeine, nicotine, salt, and alcohol intake have effects on tinnitus. Nicotine and alcohol are already proven to be bad for your ears, so they could only make tinnitus worse. And while caffeine and salt have debatable impacts on your aural health, cutting down on them can only be a good thing for your health in general.
As we mentioned, stress and tinnitus are somewhat connected, so doing your best to reduce stress may help to improve tinnitus (we do know this is easier said than done.) If your tinnitus is flaring up, then reading, meditation, or even a walk might help calm it down.
Some people find that certain minerals or vitamin supplements offer tinnitus relief. Magnesium, zinc, or B vitamins have all been cited as additional treatments for tinnitus. But as with any medical supplement, make sure you take them under the supervision of your doctor, and not just willy-nilly.
Since tinnitus is mostly noise-induced, probably the most obvious way to manage it is to avoid loud noise. Gunfire, power tools, sirens, concerts, or extended periods of music can all make tinnitus worse. If you are often around these noises, wear hearing protection.
Remember, all cases of tinnitus are different. If one kind of remedy doesn’t do much for you, you shouldn’t be disheartened. It may just be that your tinnitus can only be assuaged by a particular course of action.
Hearing aids for tinnitus
Finally, are there any tech devices that can help with tinnitus? Some hearing aids and sound therapy devices have been shown to greatly reduce the effects of tinnitus, such as:
- Widex Zen
- Various apps that can provide countersounds
- Many more tech solutions being developed for the market
Some hearing aids even come with tinnitus cancellers. Couple this with the fact that hearing aids obviously act to counter hearing loss, which is the initial cause for most cases of tinnitus, and hearing aids start to look like the best approach for a case of tinnitus.
If you’re experiencing tinnitus, then there are a couple of resources that can help you manage your condition. Firstly, the American Tinnitus Association is a free resource that can help update you or your loved ones about new treatment methods and research on tinnitus.
Secondly, you could attend a free hearing consultation, courtesy of us. If you sign up for a hearing consultation through our online form, you’ll be able to discuss your unique tinnitus condition, as well as any approaches that can be taken to fix it.
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