While hearing aids are excellent for helping people hear sounds that are beyond their reach, many don’t realize that they can also help people un-hear sounds that they cannot stop. Sounds that don’t actually exist at all.
This phenomenon is commonly referred to as Tinnitus, a medical condition where those afflicted hear persistent sounds that aren’t present in the external environment. Most tinnitus sufferers report the subjective sounds as a ringing, buzzing, hissing, whirring, or even chirping noise, but in truth it can be any type of persistent sound that isn’t actually originating from a physical source.
Despite the severe impact that these annoyingly persistent sounds can wreak on a person’s life and well being, many tinnitus sufferers don’t talk much about it, so it can be surprising to learn that one out of every five people are dealing with some degree of this condition. The lack of dialogue about tinnitus is an unfortunate consequence of there being a limited (but growing) number of options for relief, and as of yet- no known cure for tinnitus. This is due to the often uncertain cause of the condition itself, which is often viewed as a symptom of another underlying medical condition.
So what actually causes tinnitus anyway?
Tinnitus can arise from a long list of instigators, but the majority of tinnitus complaints are the result of damage to the ear and/or auditory system. And while hearing loss often accompanies tinnitus, there are over 200 medical conditions that involve tinnitus as a symptom, as well as an assortment of other unexpected causes.
Here is a quick look at some of the most common causes of tinnitus:
- Aging: In the same way that hearing loss is a function of growing older, tinnitus can be a part of that package as well. Luckily, many of the hearing aids used to treat hearing loss are also equipped to minimize or even neutralize the perception of persistent sounds.
- Damage: Trauma or damage to the auditory system is one of the most common causes of tinnitus, and can occur in a variety of ways. It could be the result of a single, traumatic exposure to loud noise, or the result of extended exposure to high decibel sounds. In either case, tinnitus resulting from damage to the ear or auditory system is typically accompanied by hearing loss as well.
- Obstructions: Believe it or not, tinnitus can even be the result of simply too much ear wax. Whether it’s ear wax, dirt, or other types of debris in the ear canal or middle ear, a simple cleaning by your hearing professional can quickly solve any tinnitus symptoms. In these situations, the sooner the obstruction is cleared, the better, as it could potentially lead to permanent damage if left untreated .
- Head and Neck Trauma: Injury to the head or neck, including inside the mouth (from dental work, for instance), can involve nerves and blood vessels that affect hearing sensations and result in tinnitus. Typically patients who suffer from tinnitus as a result of head or neck injury report more intense and variable sensations of sound.
- Sinus Pressure and Congestion: Enough nasal congestion can alter the pressure in the middle ear enough to induce tinnitus. Once the congestion clears, the tinnitus symptoms should clear as well.
- Ototoxic Drugs: These are a class of pharmaceutical drugs that list tinnitus as a side effect. While many ototoxic drugs can induce short-lived tinnitus, there are some that can create permanent tinnitus effects. Your hearing professional should screen all medication you’re taking if you’re experiencing persistent tinnitus.
- Other Medical Conditions: There is a long list of medical conditions that can create the experience of tinnitus, which is why it’s always a good idea to get it checked out by your doctor and/ or your hearing professional to see what the cause may be, and what treatment options would suit you.
Luckily for tinnitus sufferers, there have never been as many options for treatment as there are today. Many patients find relief by using hearing aids specifically designed to mute the persistent sounds, without reducing their overall hearing levels. And since more than 50% of tinnitus sufferers are also dealing with hearing loss, these hearing aids are dual-purpose.
Beyond that there are a multitude of sound therapies, relaxation therapies, drug therapies, and even phone applications to ease the discomfort of living with tinnitus. While there is no complete cure for tinnitus just yet, ongoing research and innovative approaches are bringing us closer than ever.