In some of the world’s oldest medical texts, people complain about noise in their ears. Some of them call it a buzzing. Others describe it as whispering or even singing. Today we call such conditions tinnitus. Many people experience tinnitus as a ringing in their head or ears, but it can take a variety of forms. You might experience it as a buzzing, humming, chirping or whistling sound. Some people even describe it as the sensation of a roaring ocean.
For the vast majority of people, tinnitus is a subjective sound, which means only the person who has it can hear it. It originates inside the head and can be soft or loud. Onset may be gradual or sudden. It can be constant or intermittent and you may experience it in one both ears. You may even hear it while you are sleeping.
Roughly 10% of the adult population in the United states, or 22.7 million Americans experience tinnitus for more than three months. An estimated 50 million Americans experience some degree of tinnitus in their lifetime. An estimated 90% of tinnitus sufferers also experience some degree of hearing loss. Some people with tinnitus may think their trouble hearing is caused by the tinnitus, but in fact it is the other way around and the tinnitus is due to the hearing loss.
Tinnitus is a symptom, not a disease. There are many possible causes including exposure to loud sounds, earwax blockage and reaction to medications. But some people can develop tinnitus for no obvious reason. Experts suspect that tinnitus relates to the brain trying to adapt to cell damage in the inner ear. The brain misinterprets altered signals from the ear due to the damage, resulting in a perception of sound, or tinnitus.
How you think about your tinnitus can influence your emotional reactions. Some 1 to 3 percent say tinnitus lowers their quality of life. Tinnitus can force people to withdraw from their social life, make them depressed, and give them insomnia. The brain may interpret the sound of tinnitus as something harmful to your well being. When you respond to tinnitus as a threat, you become stressed and anxious. The stress and anxiety that you feel can make the sound of the tinnitus seem even more bothersome. This is an understandable and human reaction.
Some people who experience tinnitus can ignore it most of the time and not allow it to disrupt daily activities. For others, tinnitus symptoms can worsen to the point of having a significant impact on day-to-day activities. Although there is currently no medication or surgery to cure tinnitus, there are several techniques for managing tinnitus. Your tinnitus may not go away entirely, but small changes in your life can make life with tinnitus more manageable. If you have bothersome tinnitus, a hearing evaluation is recommended. Your audiologist will help create a course of treatment that best suits your needs.