Tinnitus (“tin-eh-tus” rather than “tin-EYE-tus”) is the common ringing sound, buzzing, or hissing that people hear inside their ear. It is an abnormal perception of a sound when no sound is actually present.
Tinnitus is a very common disorder affecting over 50 million people in the United States. The ringing in ears may be intermittent, constant or fluctuant, mild or severe, and may vary from a low roaring sensation to a high pitched type of sound. It is commonly associated with hearing loss.
Tinnitus itself is not a condition but a sign of a change inside the ear or sound processing centers in the brain. The auditory system involves highly complicated inner ear structures, many neural pathways leading to and throughout the brain in a complex neural network.
Tinnitus can be intermittent or constant and present as a ringing in the ears — or buzzing, hissing, static, or other sounds. The volume can be very soft to quite loud and commonly is noticeable when you get quiet and still.
- 50 million Americans experience tinnitus to some degree.
- Of these, about 12 million have tinnitus which is severe enough to seek medical attention.
- Of those, about 2 million patients are so seriously debilitated by their ears ringing, that their day-to-day functioning is affected.
Tinnitus is caused by many different factors inside the ear and brain. The fact is that most times we never determine the exact cause of the sound. There are several likely factors which may cause ears ringing or make it worse:
- noise exposure
- wax build-up in the ear canal
- certain medications
- ear or sinus infections
- age-related hearing loss
- ear diseases
- jaw misalignment
- cardiovascular disease
- certain types of tumors
- thyroid disorders
- head and neck trauma, and many others.
Of these factors, exposure to loud noises and hearing loss are the most common causes of tinnitus. Treating a hearing loss may offer relief of tinnitus. Other new and effective treatments are also available. If you have a ringing in the ears, a comprehensive hearing evaluation is recommended.
Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications have been helpful to some in either quieting their tinnitus or relaxing their response to the tinnitus. However, in many instances, the medication causes other side effects that are more frustrating than the tinnitus itself.
When tinnitus occurs with other ear diseases, such as Menieres disease, treating the disease can often quiet the tinnitus as well.
In some very severe cases of tinnitus, an Otologist (ear surgeon) can inject specific medication directly into the inner ear to administer medication locally into cochlear structures. However, since some cases of tinnitus originate from the brain, this type of treatment is reserved for a select few where the cause of tinnitus is strongly related to the inner ear.
Several herbal products are promoted as treatments to quiet or solve tinnitus problems. Unlike medications and pharmaceuticals that are heavily regulated by the FDA, herbal and vitamin treatments are not regulated and do not have to prove their effectiveness. Anyone can create an herbal product and market it as a treatment for any medical condition without having to prove its effectiveness.
Several herbal treatments have been studied in clinics around the world and, as of 2019, not one has proven to be an effective treatment to quiet or eliminate tinnitus. However, the internet is ripe with people who report individual stories of improvement in their particular case.
The most effective treatments are focused on 2 areas; 1) reducing your response to the tinnitus, and, 2) interfering your perception of the tinnitus.
Tinnitus, or ear noise, is often caused and usually worsened by stress. Most tinnitus sufferers report worse symptoms when physically tired, over-worked, emotionally spent, or mentally frustrated. This type of stress creates a physical reaction inside the inner ear or brain that can push the tinnitus into overdrive. Tinnitus Retraining Therapy uses a combination of sound exercises and desensitization training to reduce and ultimately eliminate your response to tinnitus. As your physical and emotional response is lowered the tinnitus is naturally quieted.
The second treatment option is facilitated by use of a device meant to interrupt your awareness of the tinnitus. By exposing your ears to specific sounds and music that is attuned to your particular tinnitus frequencies, your awareness of and reaction to the tinnitus is lessened over a period of months. This therapy has shown to be effective in 70-85% of cases.
There is no magic treatment. Achieving relief from ringing in the ears is a process that often involves a combination of strategies to find the right solution for you.