Tinnitus: That buzzing in your ears
Imagine going to a concert with loud music playing and the audience cheering even louder at the performance. After the concert is over, you might hear a high-pitched buzzing sound in your ears that stays with you all night.
Now, imagine hearing this buzzing not just once but every day. The thrill of the concert may have worn off, but the noise in one or both of your ears does not. This is called tinnitus, a sound that haunts millions of people every day.
The sound of tinnitus is commonly described as a ringing, hissing, sizzling, or buzzing in the ears. It may also sound like humming, whistling, or water running. The noise may stop and start or be constant. It may be high-pitched or low-pitched, soft or loud.
In an article for The Conversation, Dr. Bradley Lesser, a professor of Otology and Neurotology at the University of Virginia, wrote that he had seen about 2,400 tinnitus patients during his 20-year career. The patients range from middle-aged to teenagers and even younger. Of the more than 50 million Americans who experience tinnitus, about 20 million live with chronic tinnitus, and another two million struggle with extreme and debilitating tinnitus, Dr. Kesser reported.
What Causes Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is a mystery to researchers who are still looking for a cure. While treatment helps, it can still be annoying to some but debilitating to people with severe tinnitus. If there is one thing that researchers do know, it’s that tinnitus can be triggered by loud noise. After listening to complaints from people living with tinnitus, the ear disorder can be caused by several factors, such as:
• Excessive earwax
• Ear infection
• Emotional distress
• Hearing loss
• Medications (such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs)
• MRI scans
• Music concerts with blaring music
• Sinus infections
• Temporomandibular Disorder (pain and dysfunction in the jaw joint and muscles that control jaw movement)
People in the military often have tinnitus due to noise from gunfire, machinery, vehicles, and aircraft. In fact, Military.com reports that tinnitus is the number one disability among veterans, and over 2.5 million veterans are currently receiving disability benefits for it. In addition, more than 167,000 veterans were diagnosed with tinnitus in 2021.
There is a variety of ways to treat tinnitus, but the type of treatment depends on what caused it in the first place. For instance, when you stop drinking caffeinated beverages or taking certain medications, or have excessive earwax removed, tinnitus may go away on its own, or the sound is reduced in your ears.
Moderate to severe cases of tinnitus can become so irritating that some people may choose to have therapy as treatment. Some of the most common forms of therapy treatment that can lessen the impact of tinnitus include:
1. Tinnitus Retraining Therapy
Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT) involves the natural ability of the brain to filter out sounds subconsciously so that it does not reach the conscious level. The brain filters, or what researchers call “habituate,” auditory sounds always. For example, the brain can tune out the sounds of air conditioners and refrigerators so that they are not perceived as loud or essential. TRT involves filtering out sounds caused by tinnitus by generating white noise to “mask” the sounds. Masking devices, which look somewhat like small hearing aids, can be used to generate a pleasant, low-volume stream of white noise to block out the sounds.
People undergoing TRT also work with a hearing specialist, usually an audiologist, who counsels them on changing their negative thinking about tinnitus. During the one- to two-hour sessions, the counselor recommends strategies to help people start the habituation process.
TRT has been the subject of more than 100 studies, and most found that the treatment worked for about 80 percent of patients. The studies showed the first improvements appeared after three months. Overall, it took one to two years for TRT to treat tinnitus effectively.
2. Cognitive Therapy
Cognitive therapy involves counseling people with tinnitus to change their adverse reaction to their ear problem to a more positive reaction. This type of therapy works best with medication or with masking devices.
3. There’s an App—and Videos—For Tinnitus
Sound therapy is part of TRT but can be used on its own. Sound therapy, also known as auricular therapy, involves using a smartphone application (app), a video, or a machine to generate white noise to filter the noise from tinnitus. One app, for instance, called “Rain Rain,” has a variety of realistic low-pitch sounds, such as thunder, rain, fire, and ocean waves, to help users relax, study, or sleep.
In addition to free phone apps, the YouTube channel has many sound-generating videos that can help cancel out tinnitus and other uncomfortable sounds. Some of the videos have black screens, and they play all night.
Besides relieving tinnitus, sound therapy also helps to reduce stress, changes brainwaves to make a person feel more relaxed, and restores balance to the body’s biological rhythms.
In serious cases, surgery may be required when tinnitus is caused by a tumor, cyst, or otosclerosis (a calcium deposit on the ear bone).
Recovering From Tinnitus Is Possible
By the time patients see a doctor for tinnitus, they are already in distress, Dr. Lesser wrote. So, it’s important for doctors to reassure their patients that tinnitus is not dangerous or life-threatening, nor a sign or symptom of something more serious.
“This simple reassurance is often enough for most people to successfully manage their tinnitus,” Dr. Bradley wrote.
Before discussing treatments, patients who have tinnitus should first have an ear exam to make sure that earwax buildup, an infection, or other simple reasons are not causing tinnitus, Dr. Bradley said. They should also undergo a comprehensive hearing test to evaluate their tinnitus.
“The goal is to get patients to a place where the condition doesn’t distract them as they go about their day or keep them awake at night,” Dr. Bradley said.