What is tinnitus?

Stressed man at work

Tinnitus is not a disease or illness, but a symptom. 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, or experiencing sudden changes in your tinnitus, you should consult with 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 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 will persist and become long term. 

Subjective tinnitus is only heard by the person experiencing it. It has been linked to altered activity in auditory areas. Tinnitus may match the frequency of  hearing loss.

Objective tinnitus is caused by actual sounds of the body such as muscle contractions or changes in blood flow and may be audible to someone else. An example would be your doctor hearing  your tinnitus through a stethoscope.

Somatic tinnitus arises from complications with the neck muscles, temporomandibular joint or other parts of your body. 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?

Tinnitus may be related to hearing loss or other conditions of the ear and auditory system. Where there is a medical cause, there may be other symptoms. For example, people with Meniere’s disease might experience vertigo, nausea or dizziness.

Insomnia, stress or anxiety can also be associated with tinnitus, and may be the focus of some treatments. 

Other similar 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 mention these to your doctor.

What treatments are available?

Brain retraining techniques involve counseling, sound therapies, and other coping strategies that are 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 you are advised to consult a doctor 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 may require immediate medical investigation.

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. 

Why not start with these simple self-help tips for managing tinnitus at home.

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