Many people experience an occasional ringing sound in their ears. This is a symptom called tinnitus, and it can also manifest as a roaring, hissing, buzzing, whistling, sizzling, chirping, tinkling, or other similar sound. Tinnitus is a widespread issue that affects approximately 1 in 5 Americans during their lifetimes.


The Facts on Tinnitus

Tinnitus is a complex problem that medical professionals are continuously researching and learning more about. While we are getting closer than ever to understanding tinnitus’s causes and effects, the reasons tinnitus develops are still not fully known. Here are a few important things you should know about tinnitus:

  • Tinnitus is a symptom rather than a condition, which means it develops due to some underlying condition or cause

  • Many people only experience a ringing in the ears for a few minutes, but tinnitus can be long lasting or permanent

  • In a large majority of cases, nobody else can hear the sound of your tinnitus, and it does not come from the surrounding environment

  • The sound may keep time with your heartbeat or breathing, or it may be constant

  • Your symptoms may be continuous or intermittent

  • Tinnitus is most common in patients 40 and older

  • Men have problems with tinnitus more often than women

Types of Tinnitus

There are two main types of tinnitus:

  1. Pulsatile (like a heartbeat) tinnitus is often caused by sounds created by muscle movements near the ear, changes in the ear canal, or blood flow (vascular) problems in the face or neck. This type of tinnitus may follow a pattern similar to your heart’s pumping.

  2. Nonpulsatile (unvarying) tinnitus is caused by problems in the nerves involved with hearing. You may hear sounds in one or both ears. Sometimes this type of tinnitus is described as coming from inside the head.

The most common cause of tinnitus is hearing loss that occurs with aging (presbycusis), but it can also be caused by living or working around loud noises (acoustic trauma). Tinnitus can occur with all types of hearing loss and may be a symptom of almost any ear disorder.

Tinnitus Treatment

Tinnitus sufferers may experience a variety of side effects including fatigue, memory loss, concentration difficulties, depression, anxiety, irritability, and lack of sleep. The most important step in determining the treatment plan for your tinnitus is to try to identify its cause. While this isn’t possible for every patient, identifying an underlying cause may allow your physician to treat that condition and thus eliminate your symptoms.

In some instances, treatment is as simple as removing impacted earwax or switching to a different type of medication. If the underlying condition is unknown or can’t be treated, there are strategies for managing symptoms and helping patients cope with the persistent noise. Some popular treatment techniques include:

  • Sound Therapy—As we learn more about how tinnitus affects the auditory system and brain, we are able to more effectively treat it using sound stimuli as a therapy technique. Sound is used to mask the noise of your tinnitus and can also retrain your brain away from hearing sounds in the frequencies specific to your tinnitus. Patients have found success using white noise machines, hearing aids designed specifically to treat tinnitus, and tonal-pattern generators, amongst other things.

  • Acoustic neural stimulation—This newer technique relies on a small handheld device that delivers acoustic signals that help desensitize the neural circuits to noise. It is effective in treating certain types of tinnitus.

  • Medication—Antidepressants, vitamins, and other supplements can help reduce tinnitus in some patients, making the symptoms easier to manage with the help of your physician.

  • Counseling—Tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT) and other counseling programs focus on helping you understand the causes and effects of tinnitus and training you strategies and mechanisms to manage your symptoms and perceptions. Many programs include lessons on relaxation techniques.

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