Many of us have had the experience of our ears “ringing” for a short while. This often follows a prolonged exposure to high volumes, such as a rock concert. But for some people, the sound of a buzzing, ringing, or whistling in their ear is constant and persistent, with the volume increasing at night and in quiet moments throughout the day. Chronic tinnitus, the experience of hearing constant sounds that come from inside your body, rather than an outside source, can be a difficult condition to cope with, leading in some cases to stress, anxiety, and depression if left untreated. An Italian research team has recently found that people who experience chronic tinnitus also have a much higher incidence of anxiety and depression compared to the general population, which is all the more reason to seek treatment for tinnitus if it becomes bothersome.
An overview of tinnitus
There are two main types of tinnitus based on potential causes. Subjective tinnitus—which is far more common and makes up 95 percent of all cases—is when the sounds can only be heard by the person experiencing tinnitus. This type of tinnitus is strongly associated with hearing loss. When hair cells in the inner ear are damaged, the brain doesn’t receive the auditory signals that it is expecting and creates the illusion of sound to compensate for those missing signals. Ototoxic drugs, or medications that damage the nerves in the ear, can also lead to subjective tinnitus. Objective tinnitus is much rarer, and occurs when someone else—such as a doctor—can also hear the sounds that a person with tinnitus is hearing. This kind of tinnitus is commonly connected to cardiovascular issues, such as damaged blood vessels or a heart murmur. Pulsatile tinnitus, or hearing one’s heartbeat in the ear, can in rare cases signal a serious medical complication and should be medically evaluated if it occurs frequently.
What causes tinnitus?
Loss of hearing, which can develop gradually or quite suddenly, is the most common cause of tinnitus. There are two main factors which can lead to auditory damage and eventually, tinnitus: exposure to loud noises (this can have prolonged, such as in the workplace; or sudden and intense such as an explosion), and the loss of hair cells in the inner ear that is considered part of the normal aging process. Pressure in the inner ear, caused by congestion or a blockage in the ear canal, can also cause short-term tinnitus, as objects such as ear wax, loose hair, or dirt can irritate the eardrum and contribute to the perception of sounds in the ear. In these cases of congestion or blockage, treatment of tinnitus may be as simple as removing the obstruction or treating the infection.
How is it treated?
There is currently no single cure for tinnitus. However, there are many treatment options available which can significantly improve the quality of life for those who experience chronic ringing or buzzing in the ears. As a majority of people with tinnitus also report having difficulty hearing, most patients will benefit from a combination treatment for both their hearing loss and tinnitus, such as being fitted with a hearing aid. Others with more severe symptoms may require acoustic therapy, such as partial or total masking of tinnitus sounds with an alternative sound, or behavioral therapy, which can help patients to disassociate tinnitus with negative behavioral reactions. Tinnitus is unique to every individual who experiences it, and as such, the best treatment option depends on a combination of factors specific to each patient.