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What Is Tinnitus?

Tinnitus (pronounced ti-nə-təs or tə-nī-təs) is the conscious awareness of a sound in your ears or head not caused by an external noise. Too often associated with hearing loss, the fact is more than 50% of people living with tinnitus don’t have measurable hearing loss. Since there are many causes, tinnitus can be associated with a variety of health problems.

You have tinnitus if you experience the following symptoms:

  • You hear a ringing, buzzing, roaring, clicking, or hissing sound in your ears.
  • These phantom sounds occur frequently – perhaps even all the time.
  • These sounds negatively affect your quality of life.

The Facts

Today tens of thousands of Coloradans are living with tinnitus. Nationwide, the American Tinnitus Association estimates the following:

  • 50 million Americans experience tinnitus to some degree.
  • 16 million have symptoms severe enough to require treatment.
  • 2 million are so seriously debilitated they can’t function on a day-to-day basis.

Treatment Is Crucial

Every person living with tinnitus hears a unique sound. The sound can be a low or high frequency. Its volume and pitch may change over time, with the severity varying from person to person. Those with acute tinnitus may struggle to sleep, focus at work, or communicate with others. In such cases, treatment plays a crucial role in helping an individual regain control of his or her life. For more information about tinnitus treatment, click here.

What Causes Tinnitus?

Tinnitus varies dramatically from person to person. Some of the causes result in permanent tinnitus that may require treatment. Others may result in temporary tinnitus. Examples of causes range from wax buildup and loud noise exposure to ototoxic medications. Below you will find more details about the seven major causes as well as how tinnitus works.

The Anatomy of Tinnitus

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

No matter what the cause, the condition interrupts transmission of sound from the ear to the brain. Some of the neural circuits no longer receive signals. Strangely, this does not cause hearing loss. Instead, when neural circuits don’t receive stimulation, they react by chattering together, alone at first and then synchronous with each other.

Once the nerve cells become hyperactive and occur at the same time, they simulate a tone the brain “hears” as tinnitus. Analogous to a piano, the broken “keys” create a permanent tone without a pianist playing the keys. The following are typical causes:

  • Wax Buildup: When wax builds up in your ear canal, it can diminish your ability to hear. Your auditory system may overcompensate, creating noises that do not exist.
  • Stress: Physical and emotional stress can result from tinnitus, worsen it, or even cause it. For some, their condition worsens as their level of stress increases.
  • Loud Noise: Loud noise can damage or destroy hair cells (called cilia) in the inner ear. Once damaged, cilia cannot be renewed or replaced. The damage can lead to permanent hearing loss and/or tinnitus. Continued exposure can make these conditions worse. 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, fibromyalgia, Ménière’s disease, Lyme disease, or thoracic outlet syndrome.
  • Hearing Loss: To some degree, many folks with tinnitus experience hearing loss. Even if it doesn’t cause hearing loss, the two conditions may be correlated and connected to your experiencing phantom noises.
  • Medications: Ototoxic medications harm or damage the ear and can cause tinnitus. Some meds cause tinnitus as a side effect without damaging the inner ear. Depending on dosage, the effects can be temporary or permanent. Before taking medication, make sure your physician is aware of your concerns and discuss options.
  • Other Causes: Many other health issues can cause tinnitus, including allergies, tumors, heart problems, blood vessel problems, jaw misalignment, and diabetes, as well as head or neck trauma.

What Should I Do If I Have Tinnitus?

Take the first step toward relief by scheduling a consultation with one of our audiologists. By carefully examining your case 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