Tinnitus is characterized by a phantom noise in your ears that typically only you hear. It affects about 15% of the general population and is common in older people. Tinnitus can be a symptom of other hearing and health conditions that should be addressed by an audiologist.
Tinnitus presents as:
The sound can be high- or low-pitched and happen constantly or infrequently. Tinnitus occurs in one or both ears, depending on the source of your condition.
What Causes Tinnitus?
There are tiny hair-like cells, or cilia, in your inner ear that vibrate when they encounter sound waves. That movement sends electric signals down your auditory nerve to your brain for interpretation. Damaged cilia may result in ringing in your ears.
Various conditions contribute to the causes of tinnitus, including:
Hearing loss: Exposure to loud noises and age-related hearing loss can permanently damage cilia, affecting their ability to send electrical signals to your brain. Hearing loss causes cilia to misfire and send pulses randomly.
Ear blockage: Ear infections, excess earwax, dirt and other obstructions create pressure in your inner ear.
Ear, head or neck injury: Trauma can damage your nerve and brain function, resulting in single-sided tinnitus.
Diabetes: Unregulated blood sugar can lead to nerve damage or death to the blood vessels in your inner ear.
Cardiovascular disease: High blood pressure and other cardiac conditions strain the blood vessels in your body, including your ears.
Meniere’s disease and temporomandibular joint disorder also cause ringing in the ears. Medications such as cancer drugs, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, some antibiotics and certain antidepressants worsen tinnitus symptoms.
How is Tinnitus Diagnosed?
An audiologist will diagnose your tinnitus based on the description of your symptoms. They will need to complete various tests to determine the cause of the ringing and recommend the appropriate treatment.
Those tests often include a hearing evaluation to determine if your tinnitus is a symptom of hearing loss. They may also ask you to move your eyes, neck, jaw and arms to see if the ringing worsens with movement. Blood tests and CT scans could be necessary to determine if an underlying health condition is the source of your tinnitus.
While tinnitus cannot be cured, it can be treated to help you manage your symptoms. Finding the right tinnitus treatment depends on what’s causing the ringing.
The following can help you manage your symptoms:
Hearing aids: Treating your hearing loss can ease your tinnitus by providing your brain with the sound stimulation it’s been missing. Hearing devices also reduce cognitive strain because they do more of the heavy lifting of amplifying and clarifying sounds.
Masking devices: Some hearing aids have special programming to manage tinnitus symptoms with masking sounds. Playing a neutral or soothing noise over the ringing can teach you to disregard the sound. White noise machines are also helpful, especially when you remove your hearing aids at night.
Counseling: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT) are administered by trained professionals who teach you how to manage your emotional response to tinnitus.
Earwax removal: Removing blockages could eliminate your tinnitus symptoms.
Medication changes: Inform your audiologist of all your medications. They will advise you which drugs may exacerbate your symptoms.