Around 50 million Americans experience tinnitus—often called “ringing in the ears.” While most cases of tinnitus do appear as a ringing sound, some people experience clicking, humming, roaring, or screeching sounds. The defining feature of tinnitus is that it is a phantom sound that no one can hear except the person who has it. Tinnitus itself is a symptom, not a disease, and it may have a number of underlying causes. In most cases, an underlying cause is never found.
While it is possible to have tinnitus without hearing loss, most tinnitus occurs in tandem with hearing loss, and likely because of it. While it is not known with certainty, it is thought that damaged or dead stereocilia—the tiny, hair-like cells in the inner ear which are responsible for converting sound into electrical impulses—may continue to “leak” signals to the brain, creating the more or less constant sound of tinnitus.
Tinnitus may also appear as a result of temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), certain medications, head traumas, blockages in the ear canal, and some other causes. There may be treatments available that alleviate tinnitus in some cases, though most tinnitus is not curable.
While most people are not bothered by their tinnitus, some people can have extremely adverse reactions, usually when their tinnitus is more severe. It can be difficult to sleep or concentrate, and can result in depression and/or anger.
If you’re experiencing tinnitus, here are some things you can do to ensure that tinnitus doesn’t control your life.
Visit Your Doctor
If you’re new to tinnitus, this is an important step. While it’s true that, most of the time, an underlying cause is never found for a person’s tinnitus, it is important to rule out curable causes. It may also be that a new medication is causing your tinnitus, which your doctor can change. In cases where excess earwax is the cause, your doctor can remove it. If it is an infection, antibiotics might remove it. They may also refer you to an ENT (otolaryngologist, or “ear, nose and throat” doctor) or an audiologist who can assist you with further treatment.
Consider Chemicals and Medications
Exposure to certain chemicals can cause tinnitus or hearing loss, and some frequently-prescribed and OTC medications can do the same. As part of your doctor visit, be prepared to discuss the chemicals you’ve come into contact with, and any medications you’re taking. Your doctor may be able to switch you to a different medication, or alter the dosage such that tinnitus is no longer a problem. For a comprehensive list of substances associated with tinnitus, consult Neil G. Bauman’s list, updated in 2021.
Masking is one of the most commonly used and most effective ways of dealing with tinnitus. Quite simply, masking involves introducing environmental sound that covers up the sound of your tinnitus. Most people are most bothered by their tinnitus at night, when the environment is quiet and they are kept awake by the sound of their tinnitus. By introducing other sound—such as a box fan, air conditioner, white noise machine, nature sounds, or whatever else helps you ignore your tinnitus—you may be able to tune it out and get some rest. This practice is also effective during the daytime for those who have trouble concentrating.
Counseling and Stress Reduction
Tinnitus can be part of a vicious cycle: the sound of tinnitus stresses you out, which makes it hard to sleep, which means your day is more stressful due to lack of sleep. Chronic stress can really wear you down, so it’s important to deal with the sources of our stress and poor sleep. Certain types of counseling, or even meditation practices, have helped those who suffer from tinnitus to view the sound as more of a benign companion, and less of an invasive enemy. This can help reorient you to live a better life even while tinnitus rings on in the background.
Healthy Eating and Exercise
The same things that are good for overall health and well-being are also good for tinnitus, according to Dr. Michael D. Seidman, a Florida-based otolaryngologist. Eating an anti-inflammatory diet—such as DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) or AMED (the Alternate Mediterranean Diet)—can help alleviate tinnitus, as well as prevent hearing loss. Exercising regularly also seems to have a similar effect, which may have to do with increasing the health of the cardiovascular system.
If you have tinnitus that is accompanied by hearing loss, hearing aids can most certainly help reduce the severity of your tinnitus. By boosting environmental sounds, hearing aids help mask tinnitus while also giving you more of what you need to be hearing. For those with hearing loss, hearing aids are the best way to avoid complications like depression, social isolation, increased risk of accidental injury, and perhaps even cognitive decline and dementia.
If you or a loved one is experiencing tinnitus and/or hearing loss, make an appointment for a hearing test today and find out how we can help increase your hearing health!