Noise in the ear or ringing has the medical name tinnitus. The complaint is usually described as noise, ringing in the ears, but it can also sound like roaring, clicking, hissing, or buzzing. The sound can be soft or loud, high or low. A person may hear noise in one or both ears. Approximately 10% of the adult population in our country last year experienced tinnitus that lasted at least 5 minutes. This is almost 8 million people.
Tinnitus is a subjective sensation that refers to sounds that come from within the body and not from an external source. The condition is often described as “ringing or tinnitus,” although several different sounds can be heard, including:
Some people may hear sounds similar to music or singing, while others hear noises that beat in time with their pulse (pulsating tinnitus). The patient may also notice that his hearing is not the same as before, or he is more sensitive to everyday sounds (so-called hyperacusis develops).
Tinnitus is rarely a sign of a serious underlying medical condition. For some people, tinnitus can come and go and only cause minor irritation. However, it can sometimes be continuous and has a significant impact on daily life. Severe cases can be very unpleasant, affect concentration, and cause problems such as insomnia and depression. In many cases, tinnitus goes away gradually over time. But it is important to seek medical attention to see if the root cause can be found and treated and to find ways to deal with the problem.
Causes of tinnitus in adults
Tinnitus is not a disease in itself. This is a symptom that something is wrong in the auditory system, which includes the ear, the auditory nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain, and the parts of the brain that process sound. Sometimes it can be something as simple as a piece of earwax blocking the ear canal. But noise can also be the result of a number of medical conditions, for example:
- hearing loss due to too high a hearing load;
- ear and sinus infections;
- diseases of the heart or blood vessels;
- Meniere’s disease;
- brain tumors;
- hormonal changes in women;
- abnormalities of the thyroid gland.
By the way, tinnitus is sometimes the first sign of hearing loss in older people. It can also be a side effect of medication. More than 200 drugs are known to cause tinnitus. It occurs when a person starts or stops taking them. People who work in noisy environments – such as construction workers, road crews, or even musicians – can develop tinnitus over time, when constant exposure to noise damages tiny sensory hair cells in the inner ear that help transmit sound to the brain. This is called excessive noise hearing loss.
Military personnel exposed to bomb explosions can develop tinnitus if the shockwave of the explosion compresses the skull and damages brain tissue in areas that help process sound.
Pulsating tinnitus is a rare type of disorder that sounds like a rhythmic pulsation in the ear, usually in sync with the heartbeat. A doctor can hear this by pressing a stethoscope to your neck or by placing a tiny microphone in your ear canal. This type of tinnitus is most often caused by problems with blood flow to the head or neck. Pulsating tinnitus can also be caused by brain tumors or abnormalities in the structure of the brain.
Even with all of these conditions and causes, some people get tinnitus for no apparent reason. It is usually not a sign of a serious health problem, although if it is loud or does not go away, the noise can cause fatigue, depression, anxiety, and problems with memory and concentration. For some, tinnitus can be a source of real mental and emotional distress.
Symptoms of tinnitus in adults
Although a person hears tinnitus, the source is actually in the networks of brain cells (which scientists call neural circuits). They disassemble and analyze the sounds that our ears hear. Tinnitus often starts in the ear but continues in the brain. Scientists have not yet come to a consensus about what is happening in the brain, which creates the illusion of sound when there is no sound. Some people think tinnitus is similar to chronic pain syndrome, in which pain persists even after a wound or fracture has healed.
Tinnitus may be the result of neuronal circuits in the brain trying to adapt to the loss of sensory hair cells by increasing their sensitivity to sound. This explains why some people with tinnitus are overly sensitive to loud noise.
Noise can also result from imbalances in nerve circuits, where damage to the inner ear alters signaling activity in the auditory cortex, the part of the brain that processes sound. Or it could be the result of abnormal interactions between neural circuits. The neural circuits involved in hearing aren’t just about processing sound. They also interact with other parts of the brain, such as the limbic region, which regulates mood and emotions.
Treatment for tinnitus in adults
The first step is to see a doctor who will check to see if anything, such as earwax, is blocking your ear canal. Your doctor will ask about your current health, medical conditions, and medications to find out if tinnitus is causing any underlying medical condition.
If your local doctor cannot find any condition causing tinnitus, you may be referred to an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor or ENT specialist). They will examine the head, neck, and ears and have their hearing tested to determine if there is hearing loss along with tinnitus. You may also be referred to an audiologist who can also measure your hearing and evaluate your tinnitus.
Some people find that tinnitus persists or gets worse. In some cases, it can become so serious that it can be difficult to hear, concentrate, or even sleep. The doctor will look for ways to reduce the severity of the noise and improve the quality of life.
Modern methods of treatment
There is no cure for tinnitus yet, but there are treatments that help many people better cope with the condition. Most doctors will suggest a combination of the following treatments based on the severity of your tinnitus and the areas of your life that are most affected by it.
Hearing aids are often helpful for people who suffer from hearing loss in addition to tinnitus. Using a hearing aid that is tuned to closely monitor the level of external noise can make it easier to hear. The better a person hears, the less he notices tinnitus.
The counseling will help you learn to live with tinnitus. Most counseling programs contain an educational component to help the patient understand what is happening in the brain causing tinnitus. Some counseling programs can also help change a person’s response to tinnitus. You can learn to do some activities yourself to make the noise less noticeable, help yourself to relax during the day, or fall asleep at night.
Wearable sound generators are small electronic devices that fit in the ear and produce a soft, pleasant sound that helps mask tinnitus. Some people want masking sound to completely hide tinnitus, but most prefer a level of masking that is slightly louder than their tinnitus. The masking sound can be soft shhh, random tones, or music.
Tabletop sound generators are used as a relaxation or sleep aid. By placing the device next to the bed, you can program the generator to reproduce pleasant sounds such as waves, waterfalls, rain, or the sounds of a summer night. If it’s mild tinnitus, this may be all it takes to get to sleep.
Acoustic nerve stimulation is a relatively new method for people who have very loud tinnitus or cannot go away. She uses a palm-sized device and headphones to transmit the broadband acoustic signal embedded in her music. Treatment helps to stimulate changes in the neural circuits in the brain, which ultimately desensitize tinnitus. The device has been shown to be effective in reducing or eliminating tinnitus in a significant number of volunteers.
Cochlear implants are sometimes used in people with tinnitus and severe hearing loss. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged part of the inner ear and sends out electrical signals that directly stimulate the auditory nerve. The device emits external sounds that help mask tinnitus and stimulate changes in nerve circuits.
Your doctor may also prescribe antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications to improve your mood and help you fall asleep.
Prevention of tinnitus in adults at home
Noise-induced hearing loss, resulting from damage to the sensitive hair cells of the inner ear, is one of the most common causes of tinnitus. Anything you can do to limit your exposure to loud noise – reducing the volume by lowering the volume, using earplugs or headphones – will help prevent tinnitus or hearing impairment.
What are the complications of tinnitus?
Most people experience short periods of tinnitus after exposure to loud noise, such as after a music concert. This is not dangerous. But constant noise can cause hearing loss and can be a sign of a serious health problem.
When to call a doctor at home for tinnitus?
You should see a therapist if you hear sounds like buzzing, ringing in your ears constantly or regularly. They may examine your ears to see if the problem may be caused by a medical condition they can easily treat, such as an ear infection or earwax. They can also do some simple tests to determine if you have hearing loss.
If necessary, your therapist can refer you to a specialist for further examinations and treatment.
Can tinnitus be treated with folk remedies?
Other medications and remedies can be found in pharmacies and on the Internet as alternatives for tinnitus, but none of these drugs have proven effective in clinical trials.