Tinnitus or “ringing in the ears” as it is often called is an aggravating condition that effects 50 million Americans which is 15% of the population. The sufferers of this condition endure the perception of sounds in their ears such as buzzing, hissing, whistling, swooshing and clicking. Twenty million people have acute conditions which are temporary and often associated with underlying problems that when remedied eliminate or lessen the ringing as well. Another 2 million have experienced chronic conditions which can be extremely debilitating. About 3% of patients have pulsatile tinnitus which is a rhythmic pulsing that may be in time with the heartbeat. It makes a whooshing or thumping sound and is related to a disturbance to the blood flow. Some have both pulsatile and continuous tinnitus at the same time. There are basically two types of tinnitus. Ninety-nine percent of those effected by this have the subjective type which is traced to auditory and neurological reactions to hearing loss and can only be heard by the sufferer. Objective tinnitus is produced by internal bodily functions like blood flow and musculo-skelatal movement and can sometimes be heard by others in close proximity to the patient.
Currently there are no scientifically based cures for most types of tinnitus except for those that are temporarily related to other health issues. There are however many treatment options available such as general wellness, hearing aids, sound, behavioral, drug, and experimental therapies and TMJ treatments. The main objective of these treatments is to reduce the burden of this condition so that the person can live a more comfortable and content life. I will address these therapies individually and provide some links for additional information which is too lengthy and involved to discuss on this blog.
There are no direct impacts on the causes of the condition itself with general wellness but these approaches provide benefits that make living with it easier to deal with. A healthy diet can lessen the negative effects by reducing high blood pressure and weight, increasing blood flow, boosting energy levels and improving emotional well being. Caffeine is one substance that is debatable as to it’s effect and is best experimented with and tracked by each individual. Exercise is an excellent stress reducer which can bring a degree of relief. This greatly helps my husband with his variety of ear ailments. Some who bicycle experience that the sound of the wind in their ears as they ride takes their attention away from the tinnitus.
Many sufferers tend to shy away from social activities due to hearing loss and irritability associated with the condition. However, removing oneself from these interactions creates a negative cycle which can create a larger problem- isolation. When the person isolates himself they focus more on the tinnitus which makes them less likely to socialize and it becomes a viscous cycle. Spending time with friends and family can distract the person from their tinnitus which helps to improve their emotions and leads to more emotional well being. Sharing ones experiences with others helps to develop a network of support that can carry you through more difficult times.
Biofeedback is a relaxation technique that helps patients control their body functions such as pulse, muscle tension and skin temperature. The intent is to manage stress and anxiety by changing the bodies reaction to these negative functions. Many notice a reduction in symptoms when stress is reduced.
Various forms of hearing protection such as ear muffs, ear plugs, and canal caps can protect from painful sounds and prevent additional damage to the auditory system. However, some find that because these block external noises that it makes their tinnitus louder when they use these products.
Most people develop tinnitus as a symptom of hearing loss due to age, hearing damage or trauma to the auditory system. Because of the hearing loss a lesser amount of external sound stimuli reaches the brain and in response to this the brain goes through changes in how it processes different sound frequencies. Tinnitus develops from these changes. Hearing aids use a microphone, amplifier and speaker to enhance the volume of outside noise and increase the amount of sound stimuli received and processed by the auditory system. These aids bring some relief to 60% of sufferers and significant relief to 22% of those who wear them for this reason. They also increase the volume of external noise so that it masks the tinnitus and the brain can focus on the outside surrounding noises. Hearing aids work best for these patients when coupled with individualized tinnitus education and counseling.
Many people use everyday household items like TV, radio, personal music players and fans to help mask the sounds in their ears. Commercial sound masking devices provide generic sounds like white noise, nature sounds and other subtle sounds. There are also more medical grade devices that are customized to the individual patient.
Behavioral therapies focus on the persons emotional reaction to tinnitus which has been shown to reduce emotional distress such as anxiety and depression that is associated with tinnitus. It is believed that severe tinnitus is more defined by it’s emotional toll than it’s auditory characteristics. It is the patients negative psychological and cognitive reactions that determine how bothersome it is. This type of therapy aims to assist patients to control their behavioral reactions to the problem and reduce their perceived impact of the condition. Those who have completed one of these therapy programs have displayed marked improvement in their depression and quality of life. There is more in depth information about behavioral therapies in this linked article.
Of course there are various drug therapies available but none have been specifically approved for tinnitus. Most options treat the stress, anxiety and depression that are associated with it. These drugs should be used under the supervision of a medical professional.
There are a small percentage of people who experience tinnitus due to underlying physiological problems. One of these is TMJ ( temporomandibular joint ) dysfunction. This may be resolved with dental treatment or bite realignment by a dentist. Other rare causes can be obstructions in the ear such as excessive ear wax or a loose hair or other object touching the eardrum. Head and neck injuries may cause tinnitus so treating the cause of the problem should alleviate it. Also some drug therapies cause ringing in the ears which is usually only temporary and will dissipate when the body fully metabolizes the drug.
The hope is that one day there will be a cure for tinnitus. Promising research and clinical trials are currently being conducted in hopes of finding a solution to this debilitating problem in the near future. Has anything helped you? We would love to hear how you cope. Stay posted!