If you’ve noticed a ringing in your ears that seems to linger or spontaneously reappear from time to time, you might have tinnitus. Tinnitus, a “ringing of the ears,” may sound like a whistle, or a rush of air, or a popping noise, or a dull roar. The sounds tend to differ as they are considered “head noise” and vary from person to person. This experience of hearing phantom sounds, without the stimulus of an external acoustic source, affects an estimated 25 million Americans in the past year (NIDCD).
If you believe you are experiencing tinnitus, it is important to seek help and treatment from an audiologist. Even the least imposing occurrences of tinnitus might have adverse effects on your health and well-being.
People who experience tinnitus are more likely to lose sleep, have difficulty with concentration, and have higher levels of stress and anxiety. When you are constantly accompanied by a high-pitched ringing noise inside your head that you cannot shut off, it will interfere with your daily life.
Often times, tinnitus is a symptom of another health issue. The auditory system located inside your head is close to the neck and jaw area. Trauma to this area may cause tinnitus, as well as growths of tumors or temporomandibular jaw (TMJ) disorders. There are also cases in which prescribed medication has caused tinnitus, particularly aminoglycoside antibiotics (used to treat meningitis), by damaging hair cells. It is important to sort out drug-induced ear problems as soon as possible.
With tinnitus, people might find themselves withdrawn and unwilling to participate in social gatherings, activities, parties, and events because of the distracting and annoying sound. There may be a hesitation because the tinnitus sound obstructs their ability to hear and respond in conversations. Social isolation has the potential to lead to bigger emotional issues, such as depression and social anxiety.
Depending on the kind of tinnitus you experience, your audiologist may be able to determine related medical conditions. If you experience subjective tinnitus (in which someone sitting near you can hear the sound as well), then you may have issues related to your vascular system. With issues like high blood pressure, there is increased blood flow to the ear, which may be a culprit for the tinnitus. Tinnitus may also indicate Meniere’s disease (which affects the inner ear), or most commonly, hearing loss.
More often than not, tinnitus and hearing loss are concurrent. Noise-induced hearing loss has the potential to lead to tinnitus. Hearing loss should be identified and treated quickly; potential links have been found between hearing loss and higher rates of falls and hospitalizations, as well as cognitive overload and dementia. When the brain struggles to make sense of muffled sounds and to fill in the gaps, it causes a strain on neural pathways. Hearing loss also leads to higher rates of social isolation and depression. If your audiologist prescribes you a hearing aid, it will most likely offer sound therapy to treat your tinnitus as well.