Nearly everybody has short bursts of mild tinnitus (mostly after a noisy concert or another public event), but for others, this sound can be more than an annoyance. More than 16 million tinnitus patients are affected enough to seek care each year in the US. Still, The United States Disease Control Centers estimates that tinnitus affects nearly 15 percent of the public, over 50 million Americans. It is also the number one condition for military personnel and women returning from service overseas.
The varying sound of tinnitus
Tinnitus experiences among people can vary wildly. It can change in:
- Tone: Most people experience ringing, but others reported a whistling, buzzing, or crackling.
- Frequency: It can be a high, medium, or low-pitched noise.
- Location: The noise may only be in one ear, on top of the head, or it may be tricky to pinpoint precisely where it comes from.
- Volume: It can vary in volume on any given day.
- Duration: The noise could be continuous, or it could be intermittent.
Types of tinnitus
There are two main tinnitus types, based on possible causes.
Subjective tinnitus — which is much more common and makes up 95 percent of all cases — is when only the person experiencing tinnitus can hear the sounds. This type of tinnitus is heavily related to hearing loss. When hair cells inside the ear are damaged, the brain does not receive the auditory signals it expects and creates the sound illusion to make up for those missing signals. Ototoxic drugs, or drugs that damage the nerves in the ear, may also cause subjective tinnitus.
Objective tinnitus is much less common and occurs when someone else — such as a doctor — can hear the sounds a person with tinnitus hears as well. This type of tinnitus is commonly linked to cardiovascular problems like damaged blood vessels or a heart murmur. In rare cases, pulsatile tinnitus, or hearing one's heartbeat in the ear, can signal a serious medical complication and should be evaluated medically if it occurs frequently.
What causes tinnitus?
Tinnitus is closely related to hearing loss and can develop slowly or suddenly. Repeated or prolonged exposure to heavy noises can damage the hair cells in the cochlea and make it challenging to hear specific frequencies.
When the brain tries to compensate for this hearing loss, the neurons react by creating the illusion of sound compensating for the missing frequencies. Therefore, a person can hear such a whistle in the high-frequency range with a high tone, and a low-frequency hearing loss results in a lower sound like a roar.
Tinnitus can also be caused by medicinal products that are toxic to the ear, and discontinuing the use of those medicinal products can help.
In some cases, the cause is treatable and straightforward as an earwax build-up, which can cause inner ear vibrations and pressure.
What are the treatment options?
There is no single cure for tinnitus at this time. However, many treatment options can significantly improve the quality of life for those experiencing chronic ringing or ear buzzing.
Many individuals with tinnitus have hearing loss too. Hearing aids increase the intensity of background sounds, making it more challenging to hear internal sounds such as tinnitus. Some hearing aids also provide a sound bank intended to reduce the symptoms of tinnitus further.
The best treatment choice for each person who experiences it depends on a variety of individual patient-specific factors. If you are looking for tinnitus treatment, please feel free to contact us!