Tinnitus affects up to 50 million people in the United States.
The world was once a much quieter place. Before the invention of heavy machinery and explosives, the loudest sound one might experience was the crack of thunder or a rushing waterfall, a lion’s roar or a baby’s cry. The sonic situation today is drastically different, with sirens, car alarms, stadiums, and other cacophonous sources invading our communities. Noise pollution is a major issue of contemporary life that, in addition to harming our ecosystems, poses a serious threat to our sleeping habits, stress levels, and heart health. Fortunately, laws exist to reduce our exposure to these toxic sounds with mandates that aim to keep decibel levels within a safe range.
But while the future may be quiet for some, for millions of others, the reality of tinnitus is disabling and seemingly endless. This condition, which can be thought of as a kind of internal noise pollution, is the number one disability suffered by combat veterans, and affects at least one in every 10 American adults. Despite this, very few people—even those who have it— know what tinnitus is or what they can do to combat it.
Tinnitus comes from the Latin word tinnire (to ring) and is a perception of sound for which there is no actual external source. You may describe it as ringing in your ears, while to others it sounds like humming, buzzing, pulsing, or whistling. Tinnitus is a symptom of damage to your auditory processing system, but is not itself a cause. As is the case with hearing loss, noise exposure is the number one cause of tinnitus in people regardless of age or gender. Other possible causes have been identified, including:
- Damaged auditory system
- Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder and jaw problems caused by teeth grinding
- Chronic neck muscle tension
- Ototoxic (ear damaging) medications
Stress is also linked to the severity of tinnitus. Patients often report more intense symptoms in times of stress and anxiety, demonstrating that tinnitus is more of a neurological condition than an auditory one. Most hearing care professionals agree that while a constant ringing in the ears can cause stress, there is no scientific proof that confirms whether stress causes or contributes to tinnitus. Either way, those with tinnitus almost always find temporary relief when they are relaxed and conscious of the density of sounds around them, as opposed to the singular tone throbbing in their head.
Unfortunately, determining that a voice in one’s head is nothing more than a hallucination doesn’t make it any less frightening—likewise, the knowledge that your tinnitus exists only in your brain brings little relief. Even in cases where a specific cause cannot be identified, the symptoms of tinnitus are real and debilitating. Brain scans have shown that tinnitus patients experience increased metabolic activity in their left auditory cortex, proving that they are experiencing genuine symptoms regardless of cause or lack thereof.
While there are a number of free resources on the web that promise to alleviate tinnitus, there is currently no known medical cure for this condition. However, many of today’s hearing aids include advanced settings for tinnitus therapy. In some cases, this can involve introducing a background noise to mask the presence of tinnitus, while other hearing aids hone in on the pitch of the tinnitus, filtering out the mental static while boosting environmental sounds. While not a complete solution, these features can provide significant relief for most tinnitus sufferers, reducing stressful responses from the body that can worsen tinnitus symptoms over time.
No matter the severity of your tinnitus, there are options to help alleviate your discomfort. With the help of a hearing care professional, you can map out the qualities of your tinnitus and determine the therapy program most appropriate for you.
*For some people, the constant effects of tinnitus can be unbearable and lead to feelings of severe depression. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts as a result of their tinnitus, there is help. Call the toll-free Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone 24/7, or visit them online. You can also find online communities on social media and elsewhere dedicated to promoting awareness about potential tinnitus remedies and support for those who are suffering.
Different kinds of tinnitus
The four manifestations of tinnitus are as follows:
- Objective: Can also be heard by a doctor, occurs rarely, and is usually due to involuntary muscle group contractions in the ear or vascular deformities. This variant usually disappears after treatment of a specific cause.
- Subjective: The most common type of tinnitus, when only you can hear the noise. It appears suddenly and lasts up to three months (acute) or ends in 12 months (subacute). Usually caused by noise exposure and accompanies hearing loss. Beyond 12 months and it is considered a chronic condition.
- Neurological: Typically caused by a neurological disorder, such as intracranial hypertension.
- Somatic: Caused or made worse by your body’s sensory system. Often associated with temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD).
While tinnitus can exist as an isolated phenomenon, more than 50 percent of those suffering from tinnitus also have an inner ear-based hearing loss. There is also a high likelihood that tinnitus symptoms could be an indication of other ailments. One example is hyperacusis, or the perception that certain environmental sounds are painfully loud when no one else with normal hearing is effected. Hyperacusis should not be confused with misophonia, a condition that causes immense frustration and anxiety in response to specific sounds, such as a person cracking their gum. People who grind their teeth in their sleep may also develop tinnitus in addition to feeling pain in their jaw, which are both signs of TMJ.
More often than not, tinnitus provokes feelings of anxiety, stress, and irritation, which in turn can lead to physical problems like insomnia. Even if your tinnitus is quiet enough to be ignored in your everyday life, it is still recommended that you consult a medical professional to determine whether or not your symptoms could be linked to another health issue.
While no cure exists yet for tinnitus, treatments are available that can help hush the constant tone. Because of the association between tinnitus and hearing loss, the use of hearing aids to mask symptoms and prevent future damage is highly recommended. Hearing aids increase the range of sounds you hear in the external world, which in turn reduces the distraction of internal noise. Many devices can automatically filter out sounds within the frequency range of your tinnitus while accentuating others, making it possible to pay less attention to tinnitus noises in favor of hearing external sounds. After you’ve identified the pitch and frequency of your tinnitus with a hearing care professional, certain devices can provide background tones that counteract and dampen the symptoms. Some hearing aids also treat hyperacusis (hearing normal sounds as excessively loud) by balancing out volume perception and providing additional relief.
Noise generators or maskers can provide droning audio distractions through your hearing system, so you can concentrate more on these soothing external sounds than the internal noise. So-called “white noise,” like the hum of a fan, and “pink noise,” such as a simulated heartbeat, have been found to provide significant relief. Many of these tones are available for free online, but be careful not to listen to them at high volumes or you could risk more damage to your hearing.
Find solutions with the help of a hearing care professional
Hearing aids with tinnitus therapy features include their own sound generators to counteract the ringing with therapeutic sounds, or can even dilute the tinnitus tone by digitally erasing it from other environmental sounds in real time. Your hearing care professional can help you determine the type of hearing aids and tinnitus therapy feature most appropriate for your condition.