Tinnitus also referred to as ringing in the ears is a hearing condition that can range from merely annoying to debilitating. It is a hearing condition where the person hears a sound that is internal rather than external. The kind of sound varies from patient to patient and can be buzzing, blowing, hissing, ringing, roaring, rumbling, clicking, whooshing or a combination of them. The sound can be intermittent or continuous and in one or both ears.
Causes and risk factors of tinnitus
Tinnitus is a symptom that something is wrong in the auditory system which includes the ear, the auditory nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain and the parts of the brain that process sound. It is relatively common affecting 15-20% of people, especially older adults. The causes vary and include;
- Ear wax buildup blocking the ear canal
- Noise-induced hearing loss
- Ear and sinus infections
- The disease of the heart and blood vessels
- Brain tumours
- Hormonal changes in women
- Thyroid abnormalities
- Ménière’s disease
- Hearing loss
- Head or neck injuries
Some things that increase your risk of developing tinnitus include:
- Loud noise exposure: such as loud music (musicians), working with heavy equipment (factory and construction workers) and exposure to things like explosions (soldiers).
- Age: your risk increases as you age
- Sex: men are more likely to experience it
- Tobacco and alcohol use: smoking and drinking increase the risk of developing it
- Health problems: certain health problems like obesity, high blood pressure, history of arthritis and cardiovascular problems increase the likelihood
Symptoms and complications
The primary symptom of tinnitus is hearing sounds in your ears that do not exist externally. Tinnitus is often not a sign of serious health problems but if it persists or is severe, it can cause:
- Anxiety and irritability
- Sleep problems
- Memory problems
- Concentration problems
- Problems with work and family life
That persistent noise can cause serious mental and emotional anguish.
Prevention and management
Tinnitus has no cure but there are ways of managing the symptoms.
- Use hearing protection if you are exposed to loud sounds.
- Turn down the volume when listening to music, especially through headphones.
- Take care of your cardiovascular health i.e. exercise and eat right.
- Limit alcohol, caffeine and nicotine intake.
If you suspect you have tinnitus, begin by going to see a doctor who will let you know if that’s the case and potentially let you know the cause. They will likely also evaluate your hearing and let you know if you are experiencing any hearing loss.
Playing background noise can drown out the tinnitus. There are phone apps and videos that generate sounds that cancel out the uncomfortable sound. The sound from air conditioners, fans and Tv or radio can also help mask the uncomfortable sound.
Wearable sound generators
These are small electronic devices that fit in the ear and use a soft, pleasant sound to help mask tinnitus.
If your tinnitus is accompanied by hearing loss, regular hearing aids can camouflage it while improving your hearing.
Talk therapy can help you deal with the unfortunate effects of living with the condition, reducing the underlying stress and teaching you to live with it rather than fight it. Your doctor could also prescribe antidepressants to help manage the effects of depression and help you sleep.
There are many supplements in the market that claim to cure or decrease tinnitus. It’s important to note that no scientific study has ever shown them to work. There is no known cure for tinnitus.
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