All About Tinnitus

Tinnitus is the internal perception of sound in the absence of an external sound source.  Often called “ringing in the ears” or described as a rushing, whirring sound, tinnitus affects people with and without hearing loss and can be one of the most difficult conditions to treat.

 The most common cause of tinnitus is noise-induced hearing loss, but it can also be a side effect of medication, due to presbycusis (age-related hearing loss), congenital hearing loss, or idiopathic (unknown) causes.

Diagnosis of tinnitus is largely based on patient report.  Because the sound are perceived internally without an external sound source, physicians and audiologists rely on patient perception to describe the sounds and rate their severity or impact on daily functioning.  There are many interesting theories about the cause of tinnitus, linking it to otoacoustic emissions, cilia (hair cells), neural activity in the auditory brainstem, etc.  While those are very interesting, for the purpose of this article, let’s discuss what you can do if you’re actually experiencing tinnitus, whatever the cause.  Because there is no one “cure,” there are many, many people (professionals or not) who claim to have solutions for tinnitus.  While each person’s experience is different, and different remedies may work for different people, here is a review of evidence-based treatments for this condition:

  • Getting cochlear implant(s) or hearing aid(s) can help people with tinnitus secondary to congenital, age-related, or noise-induced hearing loss to beat tinnitus.  Accessing actual sounds in the outside environment can help to quiet the ringing in your head, and many users of hearing devices report that their tinnitus decreases when the devices are on, and increases when devices are removed.  For people with tinnitus but without hearing loss, a hearing-aid like “masker” (device that looks like a hearing aid but plays “white noise” to counter tinnitus sounds) may help.  See Pan, T. et. al (2009).

  • While many herbal and alternative medicine treatments are promoted as tinnitus cures, THIS review of the literature from an audiologist shows that there is no evidence-based support for these claims.

  • Many people with tinnitus have found benefit, though not a cure, from acceptance-based therapies and stress-reduction techniques.  Tinnitus can be maddening, and engaging in support groups or learning how to manage the effects of stress, can be very helpful.

  • Some people with tinnitus find that it abates when they listen to music, and that the effects last after the music has been turned off.  Music via headphones may be more effective than music from a stereo.

  • White noise devices (such as those commonly marketed as sleep aids) can help to provide ambient noise to combat tinnitus.

  • Henry, JA et. al (2008) provides THIS clear explanation of various methods of Audiologic Tinnitus Management (ATM).

What is your experience with tinnitus?  What solutions have worked for you?

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