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What is tinnitus?

Do you ever hear a ringing, buzzing, roaring, clicking, or hissing sound in your ears? Do these phantom sounds occur frequently – perhaps even all the time? Is the condition negatively affecting your quality of life? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may have tinnitus. What is tinnitus? We encourage you to learn more from our website and possibly schedule an appointment with one of our specially trained audiologists.

Tinnitus (pronounced ti-nə-təs or tə-nī-təs) is a condition characterized by a conscious awareness of a sound in the ears or head that is not caused by an external noise. Sometimes it is associated with hearing loss, though over 50% of people with tinnitus do not experience measurable hearing loss. In addition, because there are many causes, the condition can act as a symptom for a variety of health problems.

The American Tinnitus Association estimates that 50 million Americans experience tinnitus to some degree. Of these, about 16 million have symptoms severe enough to require treatment. In addition, about 2 million Americans are so seriously debilitated by it, they cannot function on a normal, day-to-day basis. Based on these statistics, there are – at a minimum – tens of thousands of people living with tinnitus in Colorado.

Every person living with tinnitus hears a unique tone. The sound can manifest itself in a low or high frequency, and its volume and pitch may change over time. In addition, the severity varies from person to person. Some cases are so severe, they interfere with the person’s daily activities. For example, people with acute tinnitus may struggle to focus at work, converse with others, or even sleep. In such debilitating cases, treatment plays a crucial role in helping an individual regain control of his or her life.

What causes tinnitus?

Tinnitus varies dramatically from person to person. Some of the auditory malfunctions that cause it are long term and require treatment; others disappear after a short period of time.

Wax Buildup:
 When wax builds up in the ear canal, it can diminish your ability to hear. The auditory system may overcompensate for the hearing loss, creating noises that do not exist.

Stress: Physical and emotional stress can result from tinnitus, worsen it, or even cause it. Some people find that their condition worsens as their level of stress increases.

Loud Noise: Exposure to loud noise can damage or even destroy hair cells (known as cilia) in the inner ear. Once damaged, these hair cells cannot be renewed or replaced, and their damage can result in permanent hearing loss and/or tinnitus. Continued exposure to loud noise can make these conditions even worse, so people who work in loud environments should always wear ear protection.

Certain Disorders: Many disorders are associated with tinnitus. For example, it can be a symptom of hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, Ménière’s disease, Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, and thoracic outlet syndrome.

Hearing Loss: Many people with tinnitus also experience hearing loss to some degree. Even if it is not caused by hearing loss, the two conditions may be correlated; the nature of your hearing loss may connect to the way you experience the phantom noises.

Medications: Ototoxic medications harm or damage the ear and can cause tinnitus. In addition, some medications cause tinnitus as a side effect without damaging the inner ear. These effects, which depend on the dosage of the medication, can be temporary or permanent. Before taking any medication, ototoxic or otherwise, make sure that your physician is aware of your concerns and discuss alternative treatment options.

Other Causes: Many other health issues can cause tinnitus, including allergies, tumors, heart problems, blood vessel problems, jaw misalignment, and head or neck trauma.

How does it work?

The auditory cortex of the brain is responsible for hearing. Within a specific area of this cortex, the nerve cells and neural circuits are “tuned’ to a specific pitch, like the arrangement of keys on a piano. When we experience a hearing deviation, our brains attempt to compensate for the anomaly, setting the cycle of tinnitus into motion.

No matter what the cause (exposure to loud noise, ototoxic medication, stress, etc.), the condition leads to an interruption in the transmission of sound from the ear to the brain. Some of the neural circuits no longer receive signals. You might assume that this would result in a lack of hearing for the listener. However, when neural circuits do not receive stimulation, they do not react by remaining quiet. Instead, the nerve cells chatter together – alone at first and then becoming synchronous with each other. Once the nerve cells have become hyperactive and occur at the same time, they simulate a tone that the brain “hears” as tinnitus. To go back to the piano metaphor, the broken keys create their own permanent tone without a pianist playing the keys.

Over time, this pattern strengthens as the brain learns the phantom sound. The result, tinnitus, may become permanent if left untreated. At Sound Relief Hearing Center, we aim to silence the sound by helping your brain unlearn the tinnitus tone and rewiring the altered neural circuits.

What should I do if I have tinnitus?

Make the first step toward recovery by scheduling a consultation with one of our audiologists. By carefully examining your hearing history and conducting audiometric testing, we can identify the likely causes and recommend an effective treatment. In addition, if medically necessary, we may refer you to another physician to complete your diagnosis.

To learn more, please explore the following links:

A Vicious Cycle | Experience the Sounds | Treatment Options