Is There a Ringing Sound?
Diagnosing Tinnitus and How to Treat It
Have you ever had this annoying ringing sound in your head that just will not go away? Well, you most likely aren’t crazy, but just have tinnitus! Tinnitus, known commonly as a “ringing of the ear,” is a condition in which people experience sounds where there is really no actual external stimulus (aka actual sound).
Tinnitus presents in many different ways, such as whistling, whooshing, clicking, hissing or buzzing. It may be a continuous sound, pulsatile (throbbing, perhaps with heartbeats) or intermittent, ranging in both volume and frequency. The American Tinnitus Association (ATA) estimates that millions of Americans “experience tinnitus, often to a debilitating degree, making it one of the most common health conditions in the country.” With approximately 15% of Americans – over 50 million people – experiencing either temporary or chronic tinnitus, it is becoming a serious health and well-being issue. Sometime this condition can significantly interfere with everyday life, and the ATA estimates that about 2 million people experience debilitating cases.
While it is frustrating and doesn’t feel great, tinnitus is not an isolated condition in and of itself. The appearance of tinnitus often points to other underlying causes or health conditions. There are roughly 200 different health disorders that can generate tinnitus as a symptom! Identifying and treating both tinnitus and underlying causes often leads to a reduction or near elimination of the symptoms.
It is pretty easy to understand how this condition can often contribute to increased levels of stress and depression. Imagine having an unwanted soundtrack in your head that seems impossible to turn off. Tinnitus has been linked to memory problems, too; including the ability to concentrate and general fatigue. Overall, the symptoms easily affect a person’s emotional well-being, thus interfering with social interaction and even employment.
Thankfully, in recent years, tinnitus has begun to receive much more attention and more dedicated research. This may be because of the links found to hearing loss or damage. The US Department of Defense has put millions of dollars into tinnitus research, due to a high number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffering from tinnitus after exposure to the shocking, loud sounds of war. Noise exposure may damage the ear and is a common cause hearing loss and ringing in the ear. In most of these cases, veterans suffered varying levels of hearing loss; and tinnitus symptoms.
Remember, it is not just veterans that experience hearing damage that can lead to tinnitus. Repeated exposure to loud music (both headphones and concerts) or even worksite or factory conditions can damage your hearing over time. Be careful when you are adjusting your volume and consider wearing earplugs when going out to loud places.
The condition is evaluated in the office through a detailed patient history, physical exam and hearing test. Sometimes, imaging such as an MRI may be considered. If the tinnitus is pulsatile, cardiology consultation may be needed, and your ENT will get you a referral
While there is no complete cure for tinnitus, there are many effective treatments. Masking the noise with a fan, radio or television may help short-term. As tinnitus appears in 80-90% of hearing loss cases, hearing aid manufacturers have begun producing hearing aids that address tinnitus. The treatment of hearing loss with hearing aids can also help with any persistent ringing, thus is often an effective treatment for bothersome symptoms. Hearing aids amplify sounds in your environment, and by providing clear external sound signals, this could help with internal sounds of tinnitus. In patients with no hearing loss, a hearing aid device may still be used, but with a masking sound with volume amplification.
As a more therapeutic approach, many hearing aid manufacturers now offer sound masking options in the form of synthetic or nature sounds that mask the irritating sounds of tinnitus and also re-train the brain to hear.
The most important thing is to protect your hearing before you become at-risk of developing tinnitus. Prevention is key, so wear your earplugs and avoid prolonged or extreme noise exposure whenever possible! You can schedule an appointment with Schneiderman ENT to get a hearing evaluation even if you do not have symptoms. If you are experiencing tinnitus symptoms, make an appointment for diagnosis and treatment options.