The End of Quiet Moments
Tinnitus can be like a life sentence in prison with no chance of parole for those with persistent (lasting 6 months or longer) and bothersome (negatively affecting quality of life) symptoms. Those with chronic tinnitus can remember what it was like to enjoy the quiet solitude of a peaceful summer day in the country, but now that stillness is gone…and they may never get it back. For the untreated within this group, tinnitus can be the end of quiet moments!
Tinnitus is the perception of sounds that have no external source. The severity of tinnitus varies from an occasional awareness of a noise (ringing, hissing, buzzing, roaring, clicking, or rough sounds) in one or both ears, to an unbearable and incessant sound that drives some people to consider suicide.
Tinnitus isn’t a ‘phantom sound’ or a single disease, but a symptom that can be associated with multiple causes and aggravating contributing factors. There is real neural activity in your brain associated with your tinnitus.
Tinnitus is relatively common, but in rare cases it can be a symptom of serious disease such as vascular tumor or acoustic neurinoma (a benign, usually slow-growing tumor that develops from the balance and hearing nerves supplying the inner ear).
Some facts about tinnitus
- 10-15 percent of Americans experience chronic tinnitus, lasting more than 6 months
- 1 in 5 tinnitus patients find the symptoms hard to endure
- 9 in 10 patients with tinnitus also experience hearing loss
- The incidence of tinnitus increases as a function of the degree of hearing loss, but anyone with hearing loss can experience tinnitus
The Sounds of Tinnitus
In the late 1980s, ATA (American Tinnitus Association) co-founder Jack A. Vernon, Ph.D., recorded a 5-minute audio session showcasing and discussing various sounds of tinnitus.
Where Does Tinnitus Originate?
Tinnitus can begin anywhere along the auditory pathway. Referencing the figure (below), Tinnitus origination points include the middle ear (A), where sounds are amplified by 3 tiny bones; the inner ear (B), where the Cochlea sorts the sounds by frequency; the hearing nerve (C), where the signal is passed from the Cochlea to the brain; and the Auditory Cortex (D), where the sound is recognized and processed.
It is interesting to note that brain scans show increased metabolic activity in the left Auditory Cortex (D) of tinnitus patients. More often than not, Tinnitus is caused by damaged sensory hair cells in the inner ear due to noise exposure.
What Causes Tinnitus?
According to the American Tinnitus Association (ATA), tinnitus is most often caused by noise exposure from hazardous levels of industrial, recreational, or military noise. Loud noise destroys the sensory hair cells of the inner ear.
Other conditions linked to tinnitus include ear injuries, cardiovascular disease, age-related hearing loss, wax build-up in the ear canal, medications harmful to the ear (aspirin, certain antibiotics, loop diuretics, chemotherapy), ear or sinus infections, misaligned jaw joints (TMJ), head and neck trauma, Meniere’s disease, or a buildup of bony tissue around one of the middle ear bones (otosclerosis), which disrupts transmission of sound signals to the inner ear (cochlea). In rare cases, slow-growing tumors on auditory, vestibular, or facial nerves can cause tinnitus.
Who Gets Tinnitus?
The American Tinnitus Association estimates that more than 50 million Americans have some degree of tinnitus, and approximately 12 million people have symptoms severe enough to seek medical care. Among the elderly, 27% of those between the ages of 65 and 84 are afflicted with tinnitus, and 4 out of ten tinnitus sufferers experience tinnitus most of the day. Tinnitus is the most common service-connected disability among U.S. military veterans, resulting in nearly 1 million veterans receiving disability compensation.
In the United States, the prevalence of tinnitus increases with age, peaking at 31% for those in their 60s. The frequency of tinnitus is higher among males, non-Hispanic whites, individuals with a body mass index greater than 30, or those with hypertension, diabetes, an abnormal amount of lipids (e.g. cholesterol and/or fat) in the blood, or anxiety disorder. Individuals with a history of exposure to noise from firearms, occupations, or leisure activities have a higher concurrence of tinnitus.
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Untreated hearing loss will eventually damage your physical, emotional, and social health and well-being. These lifestyle changes will also have an unsettling effect on your relationships with important others. Learn more, here
Tinnitus treatments are highly personalized. They generally focus on counseling to manage the negative reactions associated with tinnitus, utilizing sound therapy, relaxation, and stress-reduction techniques. Learn more, here
Dr. Li-Korotky is a Gold-level Professional member of the American Tinnitus Association.