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Tinnitus is the perception of sound without the presence of an external source of sound. Over 50 million Americans have experienced tinnitus or head noises, and one in five people with tinnitus have bothersome tinnitus, which negatively affects their quality of life or health status. Those individuals with persistent and bothersome tinnitus often seek medical care.

At Santa Cruz Ear, Nose and Throat Medical Group, we understand how debilitating tinnitus can be to your quality of life. That’s why our professionals offer a variety of methods to help not only treat your tinnitus, but to help you enjoy your life again, without that ringing-in-the-ears sensation!

What are the symptoms of tinnitus?

Tinnitus is perceived as an intermittent or continuous sound in one or both ears. It can be different types of sounds (e.g. ringing, buzzing, roaring, hissing) and Its pitch can be high or low. Persistent tinnitus is tinnitus that lasts more than six months. Prior to any treatment, it is imperative to undergo a thorough medical evaluation by your otolaryngologist (ENT doctor) and audiologist.

What causes tinnitus?

Tinnitus is not a disease in itself. However it is a common symptom, and because it involves the perception of sound or sounds, it is commonly associated with the auditory (hearing) system. In fact, various parts of the auditory system, including the inner ear, often contribute to this symptom. Sometimes it is relatively easy to associate tinnitus with specific issues affecting the hearing system; at other times, it is less clear. Most tinnitus cases are primary tinnitus, where hearing loss is the only identifiable cause. Secondary tinnitus is related to a specific underlying cause that may be treatable.

Most of the time, tinnitus is subjective—heard only by the individual. Rarely, tinnitus is “objective,” where others can actually hear the sounds the patient hears.

Different parts of the hearing system can be responsible for tinnitus. The outer ear (pinna and ear canal) may be involved. Excessive earwax, especially if the wax touches the eardrum, can result in tinnitus. Middle ear problems that cause hearing problems can also cause tinnitus. These include common occurrences such as middle ear infection and uncommon ones such as otosclerosis (hardening of the tiny ear bones or ossicles).

Most tinnitus associated with the auditory system originates in the inner ear. Damage to the tiny sensory hair cells in the inner ear (that can be caused by factors such as noise damage, medications and age) commonly coincide with the onset of tinnitus.

One preventable cause of tinnitus is excessive noise exposure; in some cases, tinnitus can be noticed even before hearing loss develops and should be considered an indication of the need for hearing protection in noisy environments. Non-prescription medications such as aspirin and acetaminophen taken in high doses, and prescription medication including certain diuretics and antibiotics, can also damage the inner ear hair cells and cause tinnitus.

Tinnitus may also originate from lesions on or in the of the areas in the brain responsible for hearing. These include a number of uncommon disorders including vestibular schwannoma (acoustic neuroma) and damage from head trauma.

Several non-auditory conditions and lifestyle factors are also associated with tinnitus. Temporomandibular joint arthralgia (TMJ), depression, anxiety, insomnia and fatigue may cause tinnitus, or contribute to worsening of existing tinnitus.

How is tinnitus managed?

Although there is no cure for tinnitus, there are treatments that help many people better cope with the condition. The most effective treatment for tinnitus is to eliminate the underlying cause when it can be identified. When the cause of tinnitus cannot be identified, or medical or surgical treatment is not an option, tinnitus can still be managed using a variety of other methods. Most doctors offer a combination of treatments, depending on the severity of the tinnitus and the areas of your life it most affects. Tinnitus management includes:

  • Hearing aids often are helpful for people who have tinnitus accompanying a hearing loss. Using a hearing aid adjusted to control outside sound levels may make it easier to hear. The better you hear, the less you may notice your tinnitus. The NIDCD Hearing Aids fact sheet provides more details.
  • Counseling helps you learn how to live with your tinnitus and helps you understand the underlying causes. Some counseling programs also will help you change how you think about and react to your tinnitus. You also may learn various things you can do on your own to make the noise less noticeable, help you relax during the day or to fall asleep at night.
  • Tinnitus maskers are small electronic devices that look like hearing aids and produce a soft, soothing sound to help mask the tinnitus. Some people prefer that masking sounds totally hide their tinnitus, but most opt for a masking level that is just a bit louder than their tinnitus. Sounds can be a soft “shhhh,” random tones or music.
  • Sound generators are used as an aid for relaxation or sleep. Placed near the bed, you can program a generator to play comforting sounds such as waves, waterfalls or rain to help you fall asleep.
  • Acoustic nerve stimulation is relatively new for people whose tinnitus is very loud or persistent. A palm-sized device and headphones deliver a broadband signal embedded in music. The treatment helps stimulate change in the neurons in the brain and desensitize you to the tinnitus.
  • Antidepressants and antianxiety drugs may be prescribed by your doctor to boost your mood and help you sleep.

Tips to prevent and lessen the impact of tinnitus

Noise-induced hearing loss is one of the most common causes of tinnitus. Anything you can do to limit your exposure to loud noise—reducing the volume, wearing earplugs or earmuffs—will help prevent tinnitus or keep it from getting worse. Additional recommendations include:

  • If your blood pressure is high, consult with your doctor to help control it
  • Exercise daily to improve circulation
  • Get adequate sleep and avoid fatigue

• Use physical (sound generators, tinnitus maskers, etc.) and mind techniques to push tinnitus to the background; the less you think about the tinnitus, the less noticeable it will be

If you think you might be suffering from tinnitus, don’t hesitate to call our office and schedule an appointment with one of our caring professionals. We will help you take control of your hearing health again!