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Tinnitus involves hearing noise in one or both ears that is not caused by an external sound. Tinnitus is common, but it is not a condition on its own. Rather, it is a symptom of another underlying condition. The noise of tinnitus often sounds like a ringing in the ears, but it can also be buzzing, clicking, roaring or hissing. Although severe tinnitus can interfere with your hearing, the condition does not cause hearing loss.
What is happening when you experience tinnitus?
Medical research carried out in the past few years indicates that tinnitus is caused by absent or reduced nerve activity in the nerves which connect the damaged part of the inner ear to the central nervous system in the brain. This then leads to increased nerve activity as the signals travel to the hearing centre of the brain. When this increased activity reaches the hearing centre of the brain, a sound is heard even though the ear is not picking up any sound from its surroundings. According to medical research, it is the absent audiological input from the inner ear to the brain, which causes the hearing nerves between the inner ear and the brain to spontaneously send signals to the brain, which are interpreted as sound – and this is tinnitus. Acoustic overexposure can both damage the hair cells in the inner ear as well as the nerves, which send signals from the inner ear to the brain. Acoustic overexposure can result in noise-induced hearing loss.
The connection between hearing loss and tinnitus
A common cause of tinnitus is inner ear damage. Sensorineural hearing loss is a commonly accompanied by tinnitus. Some researchers believe that subjective tinnitus cannot exist without some prior damage to the auditory system.
Noise-induced hearing loss
Exposure to loud noises, either in a single traumatic experience or over an extended period of time, can damage the auditory system and result in hearing loss and sometimes tinnitus. Traumatic noise exposure can happen at work (e.g. loud machinery), at play (e.g. loud sporting events, concerts, recreational activities), and/or by accident (e.g. a backfiring engine.) Noise induced hearing loss is sometimes unilateral (one ear only) and typically causes patients to lose hearing around the frequency of the triggering sound trauma.
Age-related hearing loss (presbycusis)
Hearing often deteriorates, as people get older, typically starting around the age of 60. This form of hearing loss tends to be bilateral (in both ears) and involve the sensory loss of high-frequency sounds. Age-related hearing loss explains, in part, why tinnitus is so prevalent among seniors. Unlike Noise-induced Hearing Loss, Presbycusis is the cumulative result of the normal aging process on your ears. However, Noise-Induced Hearing Loss can compound the effects of Presbycusis, which can result in the onset of hearing loss earlier in life. There are many factors that can cause it but most commonly it’s the loss of nerve hair cells in the Cochlea – the organ that senses sound – caused by repeated daily exposure to noise over a lifetime.
Treatment for tinnitus
Your general health can affect the severity and impact of tinnitus, so this is also a good time to take stock of your diet, physical activity, sleep, and stress level — and take steps to improve them. You may also be able to reduce the impact of tinnitus by treating depression, anxiety, insomnia, and pain with medications or psychotherapy. If you’re often exposed to loud noises at work or at home, it’s important to reduce the risk of hearing loss (or further hearing loss) by using protectors such as earplugs or earmuff-like or custom-fitted devices.
HearCare Rhode Island
If you develop tinnitus, it’s important to make an appointment with us at HearCare Rhode Island. When you visit us, we will take a medical history, give you a physical examination, and do a series of tests to try to find the source of the problem. We will also ask you to describe the noise you’re hearing (including its pitch and sound quality, and whether it’s constant or periodic, steady or pulsatile) and the times and places in which you hear it.
If an evaluation reveals an underlying condition, then treatment for that condition often can relieve tinnitus. If the cause cannot be identified, then talk to your health care provider about treatment to help ease tinnitus. Commonly we can assist you in using a hearing aid, white noise machine or another similar device to help mask tinnitus and make your symptoms less bothersome.