Understanding Tinnitus

What is tinnitus?

If you’ve ever experienced a ringing in your ears, you may have had tinnitus. Tinnitus is a common condition that affects millions of people worldwide. Though it can be annoying, tinnitus is usually not a pressing health problem. In most cases, tinnitus goes away on its own. However, if you have severe tinnitus or if it persists for more than a few weeks, you should see your hearing health provider to rule out any underlying medical conditions. Keep reading to learn more about tinnitus and what you can do to relieve your symptoms.

What are the symptoms?

Tinnitus is a condition that affects the ears, characterized by a ringing, hissing, roaring, clicking, humming, or buzzing sound. The majority of people affected by tinnitus usually have subjective tinnitus, where only they can hear the phantom sounds. The noise may be constant or intermittent and can vary in loudness. Some people with tinnitus only hear the noise when they are in a quiet environment, while others find it difficult to concentrate or sleep. 

In other extremely rare cases, tinnitus can also be heard by your provider when conducting an examination. This type is known as objective tinnitus and often appears as a pulsating or throbbing sound that is synchronized with the beating of your heart (pulsatile). 

When to seek medical attention

While tinnitus doesn’t seem to bother some people, it is a major disruption in the lives of others. You should make an appointment to see your hearing health provider if your tinnitus develops as a result of an upper respiratory infection or if it doesn’t go away on its own within seven days. On the other hand, if you experience dizziness or hearing loss with tinnitus, you need to see your provider as soon as possible. Tinnitus that produces feelings of depression or anxiety also requires prompt medical attention. 

Common causes of tinnitus

Though the ultimate source of tinnitus is never discovered in many cases, there are several health conditions that can initiate or exacerbate its symptoms. Some of the most common are:

  • Hearing loss: When the tiny hairs in your inner ear deteriorate with age or become damaged from constant exposure to loud noise, they can transmit false electrical impulses to your brain, resulting in tinnitus. 
  • Ear blockages and infections: Blockages in your ear canals can cause tinnitus by altering the pressure within them. This usually occurs when there is an unresolved accumulation of earwax, fluid from infection, or other forms of detritus. 
  • Neck or head injuries: Often only causing tinnitus in one ear, trauma to the neck or head can negatively impact the major components associated with hearing, such as the inner ear, nerve pathways, and the brain itself. 
  • Medications: Some antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, diuretics, antidepressants, and antimalarial drugs are all known to cause tinnitus. The intensity of the symptoms is often directly correlated to the dosage and generally dissipates when treatment ends. 

Less common causalities

The following conditions are also known to induce tinnitus yet are much less prevalent sources in the overall population: 

  • Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders: Issues with joint attachment or contact at the point where the lower jawbone meets the skull can cause tinnitus.
  • Acoustic neuromas: These noncancerous growths develop on the cranial nerve, which is responsible for regulating balance and hearing.
  • Inner ear muscle spasms: These random occurrences elicit a feeling of fullness in the ear and can lead to tinnitus and loss of hearing. Sometimes the spasms are attributed to neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis. 
  • Blood vessel disorders: Conditions that alter blood pressure or the force at which blood travels through veins and arteries all contribute to tinnitus. 
  • Eustachian tube dysfunction: This causes your ear to feel full, as the tube linking the middle ear to the upper throat fails to contract. 
  • Meniere’s disease: Tinnitus is a symptom of this disease, which is marked by irregular fluid pressure within the inner ear. 
  • Ear bone transformations: As the bones of the middle ear harden due to abnormal growth, hearing is affected and often results in tinnitus. 

Risk factors for tinnitus

Although tinnitus is not life-threatening, it can be extremely bothersome and negatively impact the quality of life. Several risk factors for tinnitus include exposure to loud noise, age-related hearing loss, earwax buildup, and certain health conditions affecting the cardiovascular system. Additionally, tinnitus is more common in men and people who smoke or drink alcohol. 

Preventative measures

While there is no cure for tinnitus, there are a number of things you can do to prevent it. One of the most important safeguards is to avoid exposure to loud noises. This includes using earplugs or noise-canceling headphones when necessary. In addition, certain medications can cause tinnitus as a side effect. Try to avoid them when other treatment options are available. You should also refrain from consuming alcohol and tobacco products, as these can worsen symptoms. Finally, head and neck injuries are common causes of tinnitus. Always wear appropriate safety gear if you participate in any activities that could result in an injury. Adhering to these simple precautions can help prevent tinnitus before it ever sets in.