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What is tinnitus?

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Tinnitus is not a disease or illness, but a symptom of another condition. It may be related to hearing loss, noise exposure, some medications, stressful life events, or age related changes. Tinnitus is very common, affecting about 15% to 20% of people, especially older adults. Rarely, tinnitus may also be sign of an underlying medical condition requiring early investigation, so if you are experiencing tinnitus for the first time it is advisable to get advice from your doctor to rule out certain causes.

What does tinnitus sound like?

If you have tinnitus, you will experience it differently to other people. Tinnitus can be a single pure tone or multi-tonal. Some people report chirping, roaring, whooshing, rattling or whistling sounds. Sounds may be persistent or intermittent. Your symptoms may vary in duration and intensity, and change over time.

How long does tinnitus last?

In some cases, tinnitus is temporary, such as the ringing in the ears you might experience after a loud concert that resolves usually within a day or two. In other cases, tinnitus symptoms will persist and become long term. In this case, you may find it helpful to discuss your condition with a doctor or audiologist to identify and minimize potential triggers, and start to manage your symptoms. 

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Subjective tinnitus is only heard by the person experiencing it and has been linked to altered activity in auditory areas of the brain. A person’s tinnitus often matches the frequency of their hearing loss, suggesting that the brain is compensating for lack of input at the missing frequencies.

Objective tinnitus is caused by actual sounds of the body such as muscle contractions or altered blood flow. If your tinnitus can be heard by a third person, you probably have objective tinnitus. An example would be your doctor hearing  your tinnitus through a stethoscope.

Somatic tinnitus arises from somatic causes, often involving the neck muscles or  temporomandibular joint. If you can change the intensity or pitch of your tinnitus by clenching your jaw, or moving your head or neck, you may have somatic tinnitus. 

Pulsatile tinnitus occurs in a rhythmic pattern such as heartbeat in any of the above tinnitus types.

Are there any other symptoms associated with tinnitus?

If you are experiencing tinnitus, your doctor or audiologist will check you for hearing loss. Other possible related conditions include misophonia, phonophobia and hyperacusis, which all involve extreme sensitivity to external noise, so if you are finding certain noises especially loud or distressing, you should discuss this with your doctor. Insomnia, stress or anxiety are also commonly experienced by tinnitus patients and may be the focus of some treatments. 

Where there is a medical cause, there may be other related symptoms connected to the illness. For example, people with Meniere’s disease might experience vertigo, nausea or dizziness. 

What treatments are available?

Brain retraining techniques involve counseling, sound therapies, and other coping strategies designed to habituate people to their tinnitus noise by training their brain to ignore it. 

Sound maskers (noise generators) or hearing aids may be recommended to mask or hide tinnitus noise, or make it less noticeable.

Lifestyle changes may focus on reducing stress or improving overall health and wellness. 

Medications usually address anxiety or related conditions.

Electrical or electromagnetic stimulation devices directly target the altered brain activity associated with tinnitus by stimulating electrical and chemical healing processes such as anti-inflammatory responses. The goal of these treatments is to reduce and relieve tinnitus noise.

Filtered notched music is designed to stimulate nerve cells to reduce the altered activity in the auditory cortex and provide relief by ‘notching’ or filtering out the user’s tinnitus frequency from their selection of music or sound files.

What should I do if I think I have tinnitus?

Most cases of tinnitus are not related to a serious underlying health problem, but if you start to experience tinnitus or there are sudden changes in your tinnitus condition you should consult a doctor to get a diagnosis and rule out certain causes. You should also consult a doctor sooner rather than later if you are experiencing the following types of tinnitus:

Unilateral tinnitus may be a sign of Idiopathic Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (ISSNHL) or Meniere’s disease, which need urgent medical treatment.

Pulsatile tinnitus is usually no cause for concern but can be caused by changes in blood pressure or other causes that require immediate medical investigation.

Your doctor or audiologist will also be able to advise you on what is causing or contributing to your tinnitus and how to manage your tinnitus symptoms.

If you have a diagnosis of tinnitus without underlying medical causes and want more control over your tinnitus symptoms, pulsed electromagnetic stimulation may be suitable for you. 

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