What is tinnitus?
Tinnitus is a medical term for the perception of ringing or buzzing noise in the ears. While most people refer to it as “ringing in the ears”, one may also hear roaring, buzzing, hissing, or whistling.
Tinnitus can occur in people of all ages, but it tends to be more common in older adults. The condition can be temporary, or chronic and permanent.
There are two types of tinnitus:
- Subjective tinnitus: This type of tinnitus is the most common and is heard only by the one experiencing it. The sound can always be the same, or they could be multiple and always be changing.
- Objective tinnitus: This is a rare kind of tinnitus and is heard not only by the person but can also be detected by another person. The tinnitus is usually heard as a regular pulsing noise, in rhythm with the person’s blood flow or their pulse close to the ear tissue.
Tinnitus symptoms include hearing sounds that are non-auditory and internal sounds. They can either be intermittent or continuous. A person may experience them in one ear or both ears, either in a low-pitch or a high-pitch.
The volume of the sounds heard are likely to fluctuate and are most noticeable at night or during periods of quiet. In some cases, tinnitus may accompany some hearing loss.
The different kinds of sounds described by patients are:
Who is at risk?
Tinnitus is a common condition. Tinnitus risk factors putting a person at a higher likeliness of developing the condition are:
- Exposure to noise from work, concerts, explosives, headphones, and so on.
- Hearing loss
- Men are affected more than women
- Age, older people are more prone to tinnitus
Damage to the middle ear or the inner ear is the common cause of tinnitus. Inner ear damage can alter the way our brain processes sounds and lead to tinnitus. Similarly, damage to the eardrums or the tiny bones in the middle ear affects the conduction of sound. Tumours on the auditory nerve or in the ear can also cause tinnitus.
Regular exposure to very loud sounds can cause tinnitus in some people. This may include people who use chainsaws, jackhammers, or other heavy and noisy equipment, people who listen to loud music using headphones or at concerts, etc.
Additionally, some medications can potentially cause tinnitus and hearing damage and include:
- Antimalarial drugs
- Loop diuretic medicines
- Very large doses of aspirin
- Certain antibiotics, like erythromycin and gentamicin
- Some anti-cancer drugs
Other medical conditions that can serve as reasons for tinnitus include:
- Age-related hearing loss
- Head or neck injuries
- Muscle spasms in the middle ear
- Excess of earwax altering the way one hears
- Temporomandibular joint disorder
- Meniere’s disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
How is tinnitus diagnosed?
Tinnitus diagnosis may be done by a doctor in the following way:
- Examination: The tinnitus doctor may begin by examining the ears of the patients.
- Hearing test: An otolaryngologist may conduct a hearing test and determine the cause of tinnitus.
- Imaging tests: Imaging tests such as CT scan and MRI may be ordered to look for any deformities or damage to the ears, and to check for any tumours, blood vessel disorder, and other abnormalities.
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How is tinnitus treated?
Treating any underlying medical condition may help in tinnitus cure. They may work on switching medications if they are contributing to tinnitus. The doctor will remove any excess earwax and address any blood vessel abnormalities.
Other tinnitus treatment options include:
- Drug therapy: Drug therapy using medicine for tinnitus like tricyclic antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can help reduce tinnitus. However, not everyone may respond to the drugs and it may have side effects.
- At-home treatment: Noise suppression machine may help in dulling the tinnitus.
- Hearing aids: Hearing aids and amplification can help people with tinnitus, especially those who face trouble hearing normal noises because of it.
- Lifestyle changes: Stress can make the condition worse. Hence, making lifestyle changes to reduce stress can help manage tinnitus.
- Cochlear implants: These can help the brain in interpreting the sounds properly and may prove effective in restoring lost hearing.
How can tinnitus be prevented?
Prevention of tinnitus can be done by protecting the ear from loud noises.
- Keep an eye on the volume of your sound devices.
- Wear ear protection around louder sounds.
- Avoid medications that can cause tinnitus.
- Schedule regular hearing tests with your doctor.