Losing your hearing is bad enough. When it’s accompanied by tinnitus, however, it can be annoying, frightening, exasperating, and emotionally draining. Some patients who suffer from tinnitus in addition to hearing loss say they would rather go completely deaf and have utter silence than to deal with the constant “noise” of tinnitus.
The simple definition of tinnitus is “ringing in the ears.” Sometimes everyone gets a temporary “tone” in their hearing when something stimulates a nerve cell. And sometimes when you’re exposed to a loud noise you’ll have some temporary tinnitus that fades in a few hours, or in extreme cases, a few days. But for those people who have serious tinnitus, “ringing in the ears” doesn’t even start to cover it.
Tinnitus actually is fairly common. Somewhere between 20% and 25% of the adult population suffers from it at one time or another. And although it can be very disturbing, tinnitus by itself isn’t dangerous. However, it’s worth investigating, because it generally is an indication that something else is going on with your hearing.
“Generally, tinnitus is caused by damage to the inner ear,” said Bart Baker, audiologist at the world-renowned Farrior Ear Clinic in Tampa, Florida (USA). “Most of the time when you have tinnitus, you also have high frequency hearing loss. It’s a neural discharge that the brain interprets as sound.”
Tinnitus may manifest itself in a number of ways, such as actual ringing, buzzing, roaring, clicking, hissing, or whistling. It may be high or low pitched, it may be in one ear or both, and it may be constant or may come and go.
There actually are two different types of tinnitus: objective tinnitus and subjective tinnitus. When you have objective tinnitus, your doctor also is able to hear it when he examines you. This generally indicates some sort of physical difficulty such as a blood vessel disorder or a deformity of some part of the inner ear.
Only you can hear subjective tinnitus, which is by far more common than objective tinnitus. One of the most common root causes of subjective tinnitus is hearing loss from noise exposure, but it also may be due to other factors. These include medications that damage your hearing, age related hearing loss, earwax in your ear, otosclerosis (changes in your ear bones), Meniere’s Disease, acoustic neuroma, and other factors.
Noise exposure in and of itself doesn’t cause tinnitus, but the damage noise exposure produces can lead to tinnitus. When the cause of tinnitus is hearing loss, that means you have damage to your inner ear or to the hair cells in your cochlea.
“Tinnitus doesn’t absolutely have to occur with hearing loss, but it’s common,” Baker said. “Noise exposure affects the high frequency range of hearing, which is where damage occurs first. That’s because the outer hair cells are at the front end of the cochlea, so those are the ones that are damaged first.”
Once the damage is done, it’s permanent. Although there are a number of therapies that can help with tinnitus, and some dietary changes you can make to ameliorate it, if it’s related to hearing loss or hearing damage from noise exposure, it’s not going away. Doctors often prescribe mild sedatives such as Klonapin to help suffers cope, but the best advice most experts can offer is to do what you can to take care of it, avoid situations and medications that may increase the damage, and learn to live with it.