If you or a family member is hearing a frequent or constant ringing, clicking or hissing sound in the ears, it’s probably tinnitus (tin-EYE-tus). At the San Rafael Hearing Center, we can help diagnose the cause of your tinnitus and usually provide a solution.
Tinnitus refers to a ringing or buzzing noise in one or both ears, without having an external sound stimulus. Tinnitus is very common – Approximately 20% of Americans aged 55 to 65 suffer from this problem.
Tinnitus is not a disease. Rather, it is a symptom that can have many different causes, ranging from ear infections and other diseases, to certain medications, physical blockages of the auditory canal, or wax buildup. The most frequent cause of tinnitus is hearing loss from long-term noise.
One of the common underlying reasons for tinnitus is damage to certain cells in the inner ear. These tiny, hair-like cells are sensitive to changes in air pressure generated by sound waves as they enter your ear.
When stimulated, these cells send nerve impulses from your ear to the hearing region of the brain, where the impulses are interpreted as sound. If these sensitive ear cells become damaged, they may transmit “static” noise, which your brain interprets as an annoying ringing or buzzing sound in your ears.
Common causes of tinnitus
Here at the San Rafael Hearing Center, we often help people whose tinnitus resulted from these typical causes:
Age-related hearing loss. The medical term for hearing loss is presbycusis. As with all human senses, beginning at around age 60 some degree of hearing loss usually occurs. And, hearing loss frequently leads to tinnitus.
Noise-related hearing loss. After long-term exposure to loud noise, people suffer hearing loss and related tinnitus. Loud machinery in factories and industrial worksites, exposure to firearms and ordnance explosions, and of course listening to loud music for long periods of time, can all cause tinnitus and hearing loss.
Ear canals blocked shut by earwax accumulation. Earwax is a natural substance produced by your body to clean and protect the ear canal by trapping dirt and inhibiting bacterial growth. Yet, accumulated wax may harden and form a cerumen impaction, which can cause tinnitus and hearing loss.
Changes in the bones of the ear. Sometimes a person suffers from a stiffening of the bones in the inner ear because of abnormal bone growth, known as otosclerosis. This problem appears to result from a family genetic trait.
Some other, less-common factors that cause tinnitus
Beyond the fairly common causes listed above, tinnitus sometimes results from or is related to the following problems:
Meniere’s Disease. This is a relatively-uncommon disorder in the inner ear which is believed to be caused by high fluid pressure within the ear.
Stress and depression. Even though researchers aren’t certain about the physiologic mechanisms involved, stress and depression are often observed in people with tinnitus.
Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMJ). While TMJ is mostly known as a problem involving the joints which connect the lower jaw to the skull, this condition can also cause tinnitus.
Head and neck injuries. Injuries affecting your head or neck can impact the functioning of the auditory nerves or brain centers related to hearing. This can cause tinnitus, although it usually affects only one ear.
Acoustic neuroma. This is a form of slow-growing, non-cancerous tumor which sometimes develops on the cranial nerve, where it may affect the senses of hearing and balance and cause tinnitus, usually in a single ear. This medical condition is sometimes also known as either acoustic neurinoma or vestibular schwannoma.
Blood vessel disorders. Tinnitus resulting from a blood vessel disorder is known as pulsatile tinnitus. The causes of this variety of tinnitus include –
- Tumors in the head or neck that press on blood vessels, causing a pulsing sound
- Atherosclerosis caused by the buildup of fatty deposits inside blood vessels can lead to narrowing that causes turbulence; the ear may hear the heartbeat in the form of tinnitus
- Hypertension, and anything such as stress that increases blood pressure, can amplify tinnitus
- Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM) is a medical condition in which arteries and veins are connected; usually, this form of tinnitus affects only a single ear
Medications that may cause tinnitus. Many different kinds of medicines are known to cause tinnitus or make it worse. Generally, the higher the dose is, the worse the tinnitus. Fortunately, in almost every case the tinnitus stops when you stop taking the medicine or reduce the dosage. Among the drugs that are known to cause or worsen tinnitus:
- Aspirin and other anti-inflammatory drugs if taken in high dosages
- Antibiotics like chloramphenicol, erythromycin, gentamicin, vancomycin and others
- Cancer drugs such as mechlorethamine, vincristine and others
- Diuretics like ethacrynic acid, furosemide, bumetanide and others
- Anti-malarial medications such as quinine and chloroquine
The best first step is to visit a hearing-healthcare professional for a hearing evaluation. The staff at San Rafael Hearing Center will take a complete history of the problem and perform a full range of tests to determine the likely cause and most effective treatment for your tinnitus. We may refer you to an ear, nose and throat specialist to complete the diagnosis.
Since tinnitus is a symptom rather than an illness itself, there isn’t a single specific cure. Doctors and hearing-care pros have developed several treatments that can help relieve tinnitus. Treatments include:
Hearing aids. Tinnitus is often related to hearing loss. Hearing aids help because they can mask the “sound” of tinnitus with enhanced hearing of real sounds. We’ve found that most people with tinnitus receive either partial or complete relief from tinnitus when using hearing aids.
Maskers. Maskers are small devices that appear similar to hearing aids. They’re tuned to generate a neutral sound that covers up or “masks” the tinnitus. Just like hearing aids, maskers provide relief from tinnitus. Yet, they will not enhance hearing, and sometimes they may interfere with speech recognition.
Medication. Some people with tinnitus suffer from anxiety or other emotional reactions. Certain medications may offer relief from these responses.
Neuromonics tinnitus therapy. Neuromonics uses a combination of testing and specialized masking to help manage and reduce the response to tinnitus. This type of treatment may require six months or more, yet it has a high rate of success.
Counseling. People who suffer from tinnitus may feel anxious, depressed or experience other problems. Counselors and psychiatrists can help them feel better.
Relaxation. Relaxation is a simple treatment, yet it’s very helpful.
Beyond hearing aids and medical therapies, many people find that listening to music can be very helpful. Others enjoy listening to the recorded sounds of nature, such as the soothing sounds of ocean waves, wind, or even the sound of crickets.
And, it’s best to avoid things that may worsen tinnitus, like smoking, alcohol and loud noise. For people such as construction workers, airport personnel, or others exposed to loud noise at home or work, earplugs or special earmuffs can protect the hearing and keep tinnitus from becoming worse.
If you or a family member suffers from tinnitus, the first step is to schedule a hearing test at San Rafael Hearing Center. Testing can determine the cause of the tinnitus, and there are plenty of options for reducing or eliminating tinnitus while improving your overall hearing.
If you’d like to hear more, and hear more clearly, we can help