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Causes of Tinnitus

Tinnitus (literally “ringing” in Latin) is characterized by ringing, buzzing, or noises that originate in the ear or the head, and can cause discomfort and stress. The tinnitus can be continuous or intermittent. It is often referred to as “phantom” sound. Tinnitus is not a disease but a symptom.

Though this condition is usually not dangerous, it can be a symptom of another health problem or underlying condition. Tinnitus can cause many stressful side effects, including fatigue, sleep problems, concentration difficulty, memory problems, depression, anxiety, and irritability. Though it's not necessarily serious, it can be quite debilitating.

Is Tinnitus Common?

Tinnitus is indeed quite common. Studies estimate that tinnitus affects approximately 10-17% of the general population and 30% of individuals over the age of 65. In the United States, this would indicate that greater than 44 million people suffer from tinnitus. 1 out of 100 adults in the United States reports tinnitus as a debilitating problem. This equates to 2.6 million Americans.

About 40% of patients reporting tinnitus have some degree of hyperacusis, which is an enhanced sensitivity to sound. Of these patients, 10% of them are more bothered by their hyperacusis than the tinnitus. There is currently no epidemiological data available regarding the prevalence of hyperacusis in the general population.

It is important to note that there is not one treatment that will work for each individual.

What Causes Tinnitus?

Tinnitus may have several underlying causes. Your doctor may begin investigating the condition by first finding out what kind of tinnitus you suffer from. There are two general types of tinnitus:

1.Subjective tinnitus means that only you can hear the noise or ringing in your ears.

2.Objective tinnitus means that it may be possible for others to also hear the noise or ringing. Those sounds are referred to as somatosounds and are generated by structures in and adjacent to the ear. Somatosounds are sounds generated by non-auditory structures.

Tinnitus can be caused by a number of things from certain medications to a variety of health problems. Your physician will take a detailed history of your health and medications, perform a thorough examination, and possibly order a hearing test or conduct other tests of the auditory system.

Medical conditions that may cause tinnitus include:

  • Age-related hearing loss
  • Meniere's disease
  • Diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • TMJ—Temporomandibular Joint dysfunction
  • Vascular
  • Medications—For example, long-term aspirin usage
  • Ear disease
  • Abnormal bone growth in the ear
  • Tumors of the auditory nerve
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Post-surgical

Non-Medical conditions reported to cause or exacerbate tinnitus include:

  • Exposure to loud noise
  • Earwax accumulation
  • Stress and depression
  • Head or neck trauma
  • Barotrauma
  • Alcohol
  • Nicotine
  • Food

In many cases, the exact cause of tinnitus may not be found but serious underlying conditions can be ruled out.

Is There a Cure for Tinnitus?

There is currently no medical or surgical cure for tinnitus. There is, however, much that can be done to reduce and sometimes eliminate the perception of tinnitus. There are therapies and treatments that help patients manage the negative effects of tinnitus. Some of these methods are as follows:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Cognitive Habituation Tinnitus Therapy (CHaTT)
  • Masking
  • Multidisciplinary Methods
  • Neuromonics Tinnitus Treatment
  • Progressive Tinnitus Intervention
  • Tinnitus Activities Treatment
  • Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT)

It is important to note that there is not one treatment that will work for every individual. Several of these methods utilize a form of sound therapy to help lessen the severity of tinnitus.

Sound therapy involves the use of a sound-generating device as part of an overall program designed by an audiologist that includes education, counseling, and other activities to help ease the stress of tinnitus. Sound therapy includes an individual regimen of listening to specific sounds such as soothing tones or customized music through headphones to help re-focus the auditory system.

Medications may be an option, especially if they are to treat an underlying condition and relieve its symptoms. However, no medications have been approved specifically for the treatment of tinnitus.

Your physician or audiologist will also be able to refer you to psychological treatment or support, as tinnitus can be life-changing and hard to deal with, especially when it is a chronic problem. A tinnitus support group may also be of help.

In general, tinnitus treatments may not make the tinnitus disappear completely, but may make it less noticeable and ease your stress and anxiety from it. Speak with your audiologist about the best tinnitus treatment option for you.