Tinnitus Overview

Tinnitus is an incredibly common condition affecting over 45 million Americans, yet very few receive treatment for the persistent condition. If you have ever been in a loud environment then stepped back into a quiet one, you might have noticed a ringing in your ears.

Although this sound goes away for most people, someone with tinnitus will not be able to escape the persistent sound for an extended period of time. The sound of tinnitus is not always a “ringing,” either. Some people register tinnitus as buzzing, whistling, clicking, hissing, or roaring. In any case, the effects of chronic tinnitus can bring along other negative effects for sleep and mental health.

When a room is quiet just before sleep, that is often the time when tinnitus is most noticeable, so insomnia can be a side-effect of tinnitus, as well as other sleep disorders and disturbances. Some people with tinnitus find it difficult to focus on their activities, particularly in a quiet location like an office, library, or home. Although the persistent experience of tinnitus can be frustrating, new treatment options help many people overcome this constant sound, providing relief.

Causes of Tinnitus

Tinnitus results from a wide range of conditions, including age, noise exposure, use of in-ear headphones, earwax buildup, infections, and even smoking or excessive drinking. Although these are some of the general causes, each results in a bending, breaking, or damaging of the fragile, tiny, hairlike organelles of the stereocilia in the inner ear. When the stereocilia are damaged, they can be a cause of hearing loss, but in the case of tinnitus, it is as if the sound receptor has been permanently “turned on.”

Though there is not an external source of sound causing the sensation of hearing, the brain is registering sound as if it existed. Tinnitus often occurs in conjunction with hearing loss, making it possible for a person to have limited ability to hear in the environment while also hearing a constant stream of sound that is not really there.


Preventing Tinnitus

Many of the same preventative tactics are used for tinnitus as for hearing loss. Wearing hearing protection can protect the sensitive stereocilia from becoming bent or broken in the first place. Even a pair of disposable foam earplugs is better than nothing in a noisy environment. By lowering the effective decibel level of the space, you can protect the sensitivity of the inner ear from overexposure to noise. More advanced custom-fitted earplugs offer better protection and also enable you to carry on a conversation or engage in listening activity while attenuating the damaging sounds in other ranges.

If you work in a loud environment, take responsibility for hearing protection in order to ward off hearing loss as well as hearing loss. Limiting your exposure to noise is another approach to tinnitus prevention. In-ear headphones project sound directly to the eardrum, and they can be easily used at too loud a volume for too long an amount of time. This noise exposure from leisure use puts you at risk for not only hearing loss but tinnitus, as well.


Treatment for Tinnitus

Although there is no known permanent cure for tinnitus, treatment options are increasing rapidly. In the past, some people have resorted to playing white noise in their bedrooms while they fall asleep, attempting to mask the sound of tinnitus.

Although this approach can be effective in the short term, it is not a durable long-term solution, and it can pose problems in other areas, such as causing restless sleep or disturbing others. Hearing aids have made remarkable advancements in tinnitus treatment, offered alongside assistance for hearing loss.

One of the ways that hearing aids can treat tinnitus is to emit a sound that mimics the sound of tinnitus. When that sound wave is out of “phase” with the tone of tinnitus, it can, in effect, cancel out the sound of tinnitus. Other treatments for tinnitus include guided retraining therapy. In this process, an audiologist or hearing health practitioner trains the ear to recognize the sound of tinnitus as if it were a natural sound.

Quiet white noise is played to help the auditory system detect and process the sound of tinnitus with the same ability to tune it out that might occur with everyday environmental sounds.

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