Tinnitus: Information on Causes, Diagnosis & Treatments
Tinnitus is a serious, though nearly never life-threatening, condition of the ear where the patient hears sounds in the ears or head that are typically not there. There are cases of self-harm and suicide in individuals who have suffered the loud, debilitating effects of never-ending tinnitus sounds. The Latin origin of the word ‘tinnitus’ translates to ‘a tinkle or ring.’
According to the United States CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), over 50 million Americans experience some form of a tinnitus condition to some degree. Two-fifths of these individuals struggle with the discomfort of chronic tinnitus while others have debilitating, extreme cases.
Tinnitus involves a mild to intense sensation of sound from an external source when there is no actual noise present. Tinnitus is often called the “ringing in the ears” condition that can involve whistling, hissing, buzzing, clicking, switching, or some other sound. In the rarest cases, patients with tinnitus will experience hearing music. Some patients experienced a temporary (acute) onset condition while others have an ongoing (chronic) health condition involving the ringing.
What Type of Tinnitus?
Generally, doctors identified tinnitus in two specific types, including subjective and objective. Each condition is defined by:
- Subjective Tinnitus – Noises in the head or ear are perceived through a likely neurological or audio reaction to hearing loss. Even so, the sound can be caused by a range of other factors. Nearly all individuals reporting tinnitus are experiencing some form of subjective condition.
- Objective Tinnitus – Noises in the head or ear are often audible sounds that can be heard by other individuals, including the patient. An internal function in the patient’s body, like skeletal muscle movement (somatic) or blood flow (circulatory) systems can produce sounds. This form of tinnitus is extremely rare and represents 1% or less of all cases involving tinnitus.
Currently, scientists have yet to validate a cure for most forms of tinnitus. Even so, there are effective treatment options that are known to ease the ongoing burden of hearing undesirable sounds to allow the patient to enjoy a more productive, comfortable life.
Some Causes of Tinnitus
Many individuals who experience tinnitus also had prolonged exposure to excessively loud noises that produced a noise-induced hearing loss. Usually, the damage to the ear has caused a permanent condition where the sound-sensitive cochlea cells have been injured.
Tinnitus occurs to rock musicians, pilots, carpenters, landscapers, street repair workers, and others whose hearing is at risk because of their work environment involving loud devices, gunshots, chainsaws, loud music, or other deafening sounds. Even a single exposure to an extremely loud noise can result in permanent, ongoing tinnitus. Other illnesses and conditions that can result in unwanted tinnitus sounds involve:
- Ear Blockage – The patient may suffer an ear infection, a buildup of earwax, or a benign tumor that affects the auditory nerve and blocks normal sound
- Specific Medications – Several forms of antibiotics, aspirin, anti-inflammatory medications including NSAIDs like ibuprofen, quinine drugs, antidepressants, and sedatives are known to cause tinnitus
- The Aging Process – The deterioration of the cochlea and other components of the ear can lead to the development of tinnitus
- Meniere’s Disease – This condition can affect the inner components of the ear and lead to the development of tinnitus
- Specific Disorders – Hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, Lyme disease, thoracic outlet syndrome, and fibromyalgia are known to have a direct correlation with tinnitus
- Otosclerosis – This disease stiffens the middle ear’s small bones, creates a hearing loss, and can directly affect the progression of tinnitus
- Jaw and Neck Issues – TMJ (temporomandibular joint) syndrome has a direct correlation with developing tinnitus due to the misalignment of the jaw
- Neck and Head Injuries
- Other Factors involving cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, allergies, anemia, circulatory issues, autoimmune diseases, underactive thyroid glands, and diabetes mellitus are also associated with the development of tinnitus
The worsening of tinnitus is often associated with individuals who smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, eat specific foods, and drink caffeinated beverages. However, scientists have yet to determine if fatigue or stress worsens the condition.
Common Tinnitus Symptoms
Many of the common symptoms associated with tinnitus involve:
- Buzzing in the ears continuously or intermittently
Often, the individual experiencing tinnitus is the only one that can hear the sounds (subjective tinnitus). However, there are other forms of the condition where the sound can be identified by someone using a stethoscope placed in the ear (subjective tinnitus).
Diagnosing the Condition
Individuals who experience tinnitus should receive a physical examination by a qualified doctor who can evaluate and determine the underlying causes of the condition. An evaluation by a medical expert can exclude the very rare causes of life-threatening tinnitus. Seek out a referral to an ear, nose and throat specialist or otolaryngologist who will likely ask you specific questions that include:
- When and how did the tinnitus begin?
- Are the sounds you hear intermittent, constant, or do they pulsate?
- Do you notice any associated pain or clicking of your jaw?
- Do you experience dizziness or hearing loss at all times or during a tinnitus episode?
- Did you recently suffer a significant injury or illness?
- At any time has your hearing been exposed to excessively loud noise, including explosives or a rock concert?
To validate the diagnosis, the doctor will likely perform a comprehensive physical examination of the ear, torso, neck, and head. The doctor will likely perform a hearing test, take images, and do laboratory blood tests to rule out or verify the intensity of the condition.
Treatment is usually performed by an audiologist using various FDA approved options proven highly effective at managing tinnitus. Currently, there are no effective over the counter (OTC) substances, remedies, and formulas that work at treating tinnitus. No non-FDA-approved substances have been proven effective at diagnosing, treating, curing, or preventing tinnitus.
The initial step for treating tinnitus or sourcing the underlying cause might involve:
- Prompt medical attention for treating an ear infection
- The discontinuation of ototoxic medications that are known to affect, worsen or exacerbate tinnitus
- Resolving TMJ (temporomandibular joint) problems that create pressure and damage to the joint between the cheekbone and the jawbone.
Medical research has yet to create a cure for tinnitus. Most individuals handle the condition by becoming accustomed to the sound and tuning it out when they can. Most individuals live years by ignoring the sound rather than focusing their attention on it to find relief.
Other effective solutions for dealing with the effects of tinnitus involve managing hearing difficulties, anxiety, insomnia, depression, and social isolation. Improving your quality of life can significantly improve tinnitus issues.