Over 50 million Americans suffer from tinnitus, often called “ringing in the ears.” These unwanted, phantom sounds are caused by abnormal signals from the auditory nerves that are interpreted as sounds by your brain. Sometimes the problem is temporary and nothing more than an annoyance. However, for 20 million people it’s a chronic condition (lasting six months or longer), and 10% of these are disabled because of it.
Tinnitus is often a symptom that accompanies hearing loss, and it can be perceived as a ringing, buzzing, humming, clicking, or any of a variety of other types of sounds.
At Oasis Ear, Nose, and Throat, otolaryngologists Dr. James Osborne and Dr. Bryan Smedley know that tinnitus can be not only annoying, but since it’s often the first sign of hearing loss, without treatment, your hearing will continue to decline. That’s why our team works to help you find a lasting solution to the problem.
The biology of hearing
Sound waves travel from the air through your ear canal to the middle and inner ear. There, hair cells inside the cochlea help transform sound waves into electrical signals that travel by way of the auditory nerve to the brain's auditory cortex. If your hair cells become damaged — say, by loud noise or certain drugs — your brain’s circuits don't receive the signals they expect. Your brain then “turns up the sound,” stimulating abnormal activity in the nerve cells. This results in the illusion of sound.
The electrical noise produces a high-pitched sound if hearing loss is in the high-frequency range, or a low-pitched sound if it's in the low-frequency range. Your brain is trying to compensate for missing input.
Causes of tinnitus
Perhaps the most common cause of tinnitus is presbycusis, or age-related hearing loss. Since presbycusis is usually gradual, phantom sounds may be the first recognizable symptom. Other causes include ototoxic medications, such as some antibiotics, antimalarials, anticonvulsants, and the tricyclic antidepressants; head injuries; middle ear infections; or a buildup of cerumen (earwax). Underlying mental health issues may exacerbate the problem, as well.
Tinnitus isn’t curable, but it can be reversed in two cases: by discontinuing ototoxic medications or by removing earwax blockages.
Can you help the ringing in my ear?
Even though tinnitus isn’t curable, there are steps you can take to manage it. Since your overall health can affect the severity and impact of tinnitus, you should take stock of your diet, physical activity, sleep, and stress level, and actively take steps to improve them. You may also be able to reduce the impact by treating underlying conditions that worsen the problem, such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, and pain, with medications or psychotherapy.
If you're often exposed to loud noises at work or at home, use earplugs, earmuffs, or custom-fitted devices to baffle the sound.
And masking the symptoms by using a white-noise device can help you get needed sleep and decrease the condition’s impact on your life.
At Oasis ENT, we offer several options for dealing with ringing in your ear.
Before we make any recommendations, we conduct comprehensive physical and auditory testing. In this way, we can determine if your hearing loss is situational or age-related, and how much loss you’ve suffered and at which frequency(ies).
If we see a buildup of earwax, we remove it; if you have middle ear fluid buildup, we drain it. Since both problems cause only temporary deficits, the treatments should restore your hearing fully.
If you have age-related hearing loss, we can’t reverse the problem, but hearing aids provide a masking effect by boosting the volume of frequencies you’ve lost. The phantom sounds become buried under useful ambient sounds so you not only hear better, you’re also no longer focused on the tinnitus.
A cochlear implant is a type of in-ear device that, instead of just amplifying sounds, stimulates your auditory nerve. This removes the abnormal signals, so your brain doesn’t supply the unwanted noise. This type of implant generally works best for severe hearing loss.
If you have ringing in your ear, there’s no reason you should suffer through it. The doctors at Oasis Ear, Nose, and Throat have solutions that can help. To get started, give the office a call at 623-207-7560, or book online with us today.