Approximately 30 million Americans are affected by tinnitus (pronounce “TINN-uh-tis”), which is the perception of noises in the ear, ears, or head which are not represented by a sound source outside of the person hearing them. Tinnitus can sound like many different stimuli, such as ringing, buzzing, humming, hissing, roaring, whooshing, seashell/ocean sounds, crickets, clicking, etc. One in four people say their tinnitus is loud, and one in five say it is disabling, affecting sleep, hearing, and concentration. Most people have subjective tinnitus, meaning that only the person with the tinnitus can hear it. A small minority of people have objective tinnitus, audible with a microphone in the ear canal of the person with tinnitus.
Tinnitus is typically connected to inner ear change, and is often – but not always – related to a hearing loss. It can also be associated with correctable issues, such as cerumen, or earwax impaction, tympanic membrane or middle ear bone problems, or Eustachian tube dysfunction (the tube that ventilates the middle ear space).
When tinnitus is due to inner ear hearing loss, the source could be the nerve endings of the cochlea, or inner ear, or any part of the pathway up to the auditory cortex. Possible causes of inner ear hearing loss and tinnitus include damage from excessive noise or music exposure, infection, autoimmune disorders, medication side effect, tumors, hereditary conditions, or presbycusis (inner ear change associated with aging).
For many people with tinnitus, a cycle of noticing the tinnitus initially, then a negative reaction to the tinnitus, increases the severity of the tinnitus. This can further increase the intensity of the tinnitus. Patients can become emotionally involved with fear, anxiety, depression, with the tinnitus becoming increasingly prevalent. Tinnitus can be overwhelming, a loud and seemingly inescapable disability to the person with the tinnitus.
Many people find that keeping some background sound on at all times is soothing and distracting to the brain. Alternatively, Tinnitus Sound Therapy (TST) is a way that audiologists can help to reduce the impact of tinnitus. The goal of TST is to reduce how much a patient notices his or her tinnitus. It can take anywhere from six to twenty-four months for full impact. Patience and the dedication of both the patient and audiologist are essential.
TST is available in a number of different devices which can be explained by an audiologist. The tinnitus blends into the background of a barely audible sound produced by these specialized devices. In so doing, TST devices help to distract the brain, and interfere with the patient’s perception and awareness of tinnitus. Over time, the tinnitus can become more quiet and less intense, breaking the cycle of concern and emotional distress. Tinnitus sound therapy is, in effect, teaching the brain to react differently to the tinnitus, helping the patient to feel that the tinnitus is less important over time.
Tinnitus can be a disabling condition. Fortunately, new technologies exist which provide effective management options. Patients with tinnitus should consider reaching out to an Ear, Nose, and Throat physician or an Audiologist to learn more about what treatment options are suitable for them.