What is Tinnitus?
Call us Professor Eargo, because we’re about to drop some knowledge about ears on your pair. We’re talking about tinnitus, which comes from the Latin word tinnire, meaning to ring. The word has two different pronunciations, both of which are correct and interchangeable (unlike your days-of-the-week underwear. Or so we hope).
ti-NIGHT-us: typically used by patients and laypeople
TINN-a-tus: typically used by clinicians, researchers, and laypeople who have spent way too much time on WebMD.
For our readers who have yet to experience what is known by our team of audiologists as a “symptom of an underlying condition, such as age-related hearing loss, ear injury or a circulatory system disorder,” tinnitus is the perception of sound in the head or ears which is not from an external source. It is most often recognized as a ringing sensation in the ears, and can also be described as hissing, buzzing, whistling, roaring, or chirping. In rare cases, people describe it as a musical tune, though luckily, it’s almost never described as “the song that never ends” on a never-ending loop of despair.”
Tinnitus can be a temporary experience: you may experience it after a loud concert, only to have it dissipate after a few hours. But should the tinnitus become continuous, that’s when you’ve got a day-to-day concern on your hands. Especially if you’re hearing a never-ending song with no record player in sight.
How common is Tinnitus?
Though it’s difficult to determine the exact cause of tinnitus, the most common culprit is noise exposure. But even if noise exposure is sitting pretty at the top of our suspects list — it certainly stands out in a lineup — tinnitus can actually stem from roughly two hundred different health conditions. Here are some of the most common, according to the American Tinnitus Association :
Age-related hearing loss.
It’s no secret that things tend to change as you age (here’s looking at you, gravity). Well… unless you’re Demi Moore. For the rest of us normal, non-Demis of the world, hearing is a sense that tends to worsen as we age, and usually starts around age 60. And said hearing loss can cause… you guessed it: tinnitus.
Exposure to loud noise.
Loud noises, such as those from heavy equipment, chainsaws and firearms, are common sources of noise-related hearing loss. Think you’re safe because you don’t walk around wielding a chainsaw, à la Leatherface? Think again: portable music devices, such as MP3 players or iPods, can also cause noise-related hearing loss, especially if you’re hosting your own personal Woodstock under your over-the-ear headphones. Tinnitus can also be caused by short-term exposure, such as attending loud concerts. But don’t shred those Paul Simon tickets just yet…this type of short-term exposure usually goes away. It’s the long-term exposure to loud sounds that typically results in more long-term to permanent damage.
When was the last time you thanked your earwax? If the answer is “never,” stop what you’re doing and order it an edible arrangement. Earwax is a superstar, protecting your ear canal day and night by trapping dirt and slowing the growth of bacteria. But sometimes, it goes a little overboard. When too much earwax accumulates, it becomes hard to wash away naturally, causing hearing loss or irritation of the eardrum, which can lead to tinnitus. But hey, you can’t fault ear wax for working overtime. If anything, it deserves two edible arrangements.
Ear bone changes.
Stiffening of the bones in your middle ear (otosclerosis) may affect your hearing and cause tinnitus. This condition, caused by abnormal bone growth, tends to run in families. Just another fun thing to fight about over the Thanksgiving dinner table.
But even with all of these associated conditions and causes, some people develop tinnitus for no obvious reason. Most of the time, tinnitus isn’t a sign of a serious health problem, although if it’s loud or doesn’t go away, it can cause fatigue, depression, anxiety, and problems with memory and concentration. For some, tinnitus can be a source of real mental and emotional anguish. If this sounds like you, you may want to seek a medical doctor and explore your options.
How do I treat Tinnitus?
There is currently no scientifically-validated cure for most types of tinnitus. However, there are treatment options that can ease the perceived burden of tinnitus, allowing patients to live more comfortable, productive lives. The use of hearing aids is just one of the ways used to help relieve the symptoms of tinnitus.
Why? Well, there’s a high correlation between tinnitus and hearing loss, so it’s possible that whatever caused the hearing loss may have also caused the tinnitus. Amplification has been found to be extremely effective for people with hearing loss who also experience mildly bothersome tinnitus. Hearing instruments both reduce the stress associated with the inability to hear, and reduce the perception of the tinnitus by increasing environmental sound and decreasing the ratio of the tinnitus signal to the external signal. Simply put, hearing instruments are your friend. Buy them an edible arrangement while you’re at it. (What? We’re big on chocolate-covered fruit).
In a 2007 survey of hearing health professionals, respondents self-reported that roughly 60% of their tinnitus patients experienced at least some relief when wearing hearing aids, while roughly 22% of patients found significant relief. Hey, you know how those 22% of patients should express their gratitude for their hearing aids? With two sticks of gum and a firm handshake.
Just kidding. An edible arrangement. The answer is always going to be “an edible arrangement.”
 Tinnitus Practitioners Association
 American Tinnitus Association