If you or someone you love has recently been diagnosed with tinnitus, check out our list of tinnitus FAQs. We’ve rounded up some of the most common questions we hear from patients. Although this list isn’t exhaustive, it should help you better understand what tinnitus is, why it occurs, and how you can treat it.
What is tinnitus?
Tinnitus is the perception of sound that has no external source. People afflicted with tinnitus often describe it as sounding like ringing, hissing, roaring, buzzing, or whooshing, and it can be perceived in one or both ears. Some people experience tinnitus intermittently; others hear it constantly. Stress, fatigue, anxiety, and other triggers can exacerbate the sound.
How common is tinnitus?
According to the American Tinnitus Association, nearly 50 million Americans (about 15% of the general population) experience tinnitus. Of those people, approximately 10 to 12 million experience chronic tinnitus and seek medical attention for their condition. For about 1 to 2 million Americans, tinnitus is debilitating, ruthlessly reducing their quality of life and compromising their cognitive abilities.
Children experience tinnitus as well. In 2001, the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) reported that nearly 13% of children between the ages of 6-19 have some form of noise-induced hearing loss that can cause tinnitus or lead to its development.
Frequent exposure to loud noise can cause both hearing loss and tinnitus, so musicians, construction workers, and airport ground staff are more likely to have tinnitus. In 2007, a study of 900 musicians found that at least 60% reported occasional tinnitus (source).
What should I do if I have tinnitus?
First, schedule a consultation with one of our audiologists. To determine the cause and severity of your tinnitus, we will examine your ears, ask about your hearing health, and conduct audiometric testing. Using the information we gather, we will explore the best treatment options for your tinnitus. If medically necessary, we may refer you to another physician to complete the diagnosis.
What causes tinnitus?
A variety of different factors can cause or exacerbate tinnitus, including loud noises, medications, wax buildup, and certain disorders. By determining the cause of your tinnitus, an audiologist can recommend a more effective treatment.
- Wax Buildup: A buildup of cerumen (more commonly known as earwax) in the ear canal may diminish your ability to hear. This can cause the auditory system to overcompensate, creating stimulation in the form of noises that do not exist, i.e. tinnitus.
- Stress: Physical or emotional stress can act as a catalyst for the onset of tinnitus. Stress can also exacerbate existing tinnitus.
- Loud Noise: Loud sounds can damage or even destroy hair cells (known as cilia) in the inner ear. This can result in permanent hearing loss and tinnitus, and both conditions may worsen if the exposure to loud noises continues. Once damaged, hair cells cannot be renewed or replaced.
- Certain Disorders: Some medical disorders can cause tinnitus, including hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, Ménière’s disease, Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, and thoracic outlet syndrome.
- Hearing Loss: Many people with tinnitus also experience some degree of hearing loss.
- Ototoxicity: Some medications are ototoxic, which means they are harmful and damaging to the ear. In addition to tinnitus, they can cause hearing loss or balance disorders. Other medications produce tinnitus as a side effect without damaging the inner ear. The effects of ototoxic medications can be temporary or permanent depending on the dosage. Before you begin taking a new medication, let your prescribing physician know that you experience tinnitus and discuss alternative medications that may be available.
Other causes of tinnitus include allergies, acoustic neuromas, issues with the heart and blood vessels, jaw misalignment, and head or neck trauma. To determine the cause of your tinnitus, schedule a consultation with an audiologist.
Will my tinnitus go away on its own?
In many cases, tinnitus dissipates on its own regardless of the cause. However, that doesn’t mean you should wait weeks, months, or even years for your tinnitus to disappear. If your tinnitus continues for more than a couple of weeks and negatively affects your quality of life, consult an audiologist. The sooner you seek help, the sooner you can find a treatment protocol to resolve your tinnitus. This is especially important if your tinnitus grows louder over time, as this may indicate that you suffer from progressive hearing loss.
Why doesn’t tinnitus go away for some people?
Some people suffer from long-term or permanent tinnitus. In these cases, one or more of the causes of tinnitus is likely auditory malfunction, which is often caused by hearing loss from loud noise exposure. When the brain attempts to compensate for this malfunction, it can start a vicious cycle that ends in tinnitus. To better understand how this cycle works and how you can end it, consult with an audiologist.
What is Ménière’s disease?
If you’re trying to determine the cause of your tinnitus, you might stumble across Ménière’s disease. Ménière’s disease is a disorder of the inner ear that usually affects hearing and balance. It can cause debilitating vertigo and tinnitus, and it sometimes creates a feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear. Typically, it only affects one ear. Although people of all ages can develop Ménière’s disease, including children, it most often impacts people in their 40s and 50s. Various treatment strategies can relieve the symptoms of Ménière’s disease and minimize its long-term impact, but it is considered a chronic condition.
How is tinnitus treated?
Our audiologists treat tinnitus using several FDA-approved treatments that have been proven effective. Your treatment will depend on your symptoms and the cause of your tinnitus. Potential treatments include Oticon Tinnitus SoundSupport™, the Widex Zen™ program, the ReSound Linx2™ iPhone Tinnitus Relief app, and hearing aids. To further explore your treatment options, explore our Tinnitus Treatment page.
Do any over-the-counter tinnitus treatments work?
No. Over-the-counter substances and herbal remedies do not work in the treatment of tinnitus. No reliable scientific evidence proves that such substances have any impact on tinnitus. This includes Lipoflavinoids, which have not been approved by the FDA to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent tinnitus. Many of these products are essentially multi-vitamins. Be wary of anecdotal success stories. Sometimes when people take over-the-counter treatments, this coincides with their natural relief from tinnitus, leading them to believe that the treatment has worked. A short-term placebo effect can also cause someone to believe an ineffectual treatment is effective.
What is an audiologist?
Audiologists are healthcare professionals that specialize in identifying, diagnosing, treating, and monitoring disorders of the auditory and vestibular systems of the ear. They are trained to manage and treat a variety of related issues, including tinnitus, hyperacusis, hearing loss, and balance problems. Audiologists also dispense hearing devices, map cochlear implants, and help users manage their hearing devices.
To effectively help their patients, audiologists receive training in anatomy, physiology, hearing devices, cochlear implants, electrophysiology, acoustics, psychophysics, neurology, vestibular function and assessment, balance disorders, counseling, and sign language. Depending on the program an audiologist attends and the country in which it is located, audiologists usually graduate with one of the following qualifications: Au.D., STI, PhD, or ScD.
Are Sound Relief Hearing Center’s audiologists M.D.s?
No. Our audiologists are all Doctors of Audiology (Au.D.s) that specialize in non-surgical options for treating tinnitus, hyperacusis, and hearing loss. If you do need an M.D., we can provide a referral so that you visit the best doctor for your needs. However, most people with tinnitus do not require an M.D. for treatment, because the condition cannot be treated with medication or surgery.
How do maskers and sound generators differ?
When used in the treatment of tinnitus, maskers are like band-aids. They generate white noise to cover up, or “mask,” the problem. Although maskers may provide short-term relief, we do not use them with Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT) because they only cover up the sound of tinnitus.
Sound generators used in TRT, on the other hand, produce a customized, low-level sound. You can listen to this soothing sound daily. Unlike maskers, they have been proven effective in cortical (brain) reorganization to reduce tinnitus. To ensure that your sound generator provides effective relief, you will need to consult an audiologist. Only a specialist with training on the neurophysiological model of tinnitus and TRT can properly recommend and program the correct sound generator to treat your unique symptoms.
What is the difference between subjective tinnitus and objective tinnitus?
Most people with tinnitus suffer from subjective tinnitus, which is the perception of sound without the presence of an acoustic stimulus. This is the condition that we describe in depth on our website and in our literature. Objective tinnitus is a rare form of tinnitus in which the troubling sound can, in some cases, be heard by others. It usually results from noise generated by structures located in or near the ear. For example, objective tinnitus can arise due to an inner ear bone condition, a blood vessel issue, or muscle contractions.
Many of our patients have questions about tinnitus, and we’ve tried to answer the most common queries in this list of tinnitus FAQs – but perhaps we didn’t answer your question. For more information or to further discuss these tinnitus FAQs, please contact Sound Relief Hearing Center today.