Hearing loss is a very common problem in both the elderly and middle-aged population. It causes various difficulties in life that have to be dealt with. But the constant “noise” in the ears brings even more discomfort. This phenomenon is called tinnitus.
Today more and more people are asking us questions related to this phenomenon. Why is there noise and ringing in the ear? Can other people hear these sounds? What happens to hearing? Is it getting weaker or worsening?
What is tinnitus?
Tinnitus is a process characterized by the appearance of ringing or noise in the ears. This is a very common problem. According to current estimates, at least 10% of the world’s population suffers from it. People with severe tinnitus may have problems hearing, working, or even sleeping. The main symptoms of the problem are:
Ringing in the ears
The noise can range from a low roar to a high pitched ringing, which occurs in one or both ears. Sometimes the noise is so loud that it interferes with concentration or can lead to psychological disorders.
How does tinnitus occur? Sound waves normally travel through the auditory canal to the middle and inner ear, then to the anterior portion of the membranous labyrinth, which is responsible for the auditory part. It is there that the hair cells are located – the receptors of the auditory system and the vestibular apparatus. They convert sound waves into electrical signals. The latter passes through the auditory nerve to the auditory cortex of the brain, where signals are converted into sounds, which are significant to us.
In some conditions and diseases, the hair cells are damaged and the chain leading to the brain is disrupted. The brain does not receive the expected signals and begins to rebuild the work of the corresponding departments. This stimulates abnormal activity in neurons, which leads to tinnitus.
Currently, there is no cure for tinnitus, though 50 million Americans (1 out of 6) experience ringing in the ears. Over 12 million people have sought medical attention to address the symptoms of tinnitus. Not to mention tinnitus is one of the leading medical disabilities military veterans are experiencing.
What causes tinnitus?
The exact cause of the development of tinnitus is often difficult to establish. There are many different places in the inner ear and auditory nerve where damage can occur. Therefore, tinnitus causes vary. It should be understood that such a problem never develops as an independent phenomenon, always acting as a consequence of an existing disorder of the body.
Hearing care professional, Dr. Zhanneta Shapiro identifies the following common causes of tinnitus, which are most common in patients.
Prolonged exposure to noise
Long-term exposure to loud noise has a very negative effect on human hearing. The sound pressure kills hair cells, which are responsible for transmitting signals to the brain. Unfortunately, they cannot be restored. As a result, the person loses their hearing. Often, noise-induced hearing loss comes with tinnitus. Long-term noise exposure has been identified as one of the main causes of hearing problems. After all, most of the population is exposed to harmful sound pressure. Noise-induced hearing loss occurs not only in specific professions (construction worker, sound engineer, etc.) but also in young people due to excessive use of headphones and earbuds. Audiology Island will have a separate article regarding this topic which we will post shortly.
One of the most common tinnitus causes. Some ear diseases can damage the auditory nerve, which leads to the problem. The most dangerous in this regard are:
Otosclerosis leads to stiffness of the small bones inside the middle ear
Meniere’s disease causes destabilization of the inner ear
Unfortunately, our auditory system is very sensitive to any damage. Even a reduction of blood flow to it entails negative consequences, very often irreversible. Therefore, any problems with the vessels might lead to a certain type of tinnitus. It is usually associated with pulsatile tinnitus. The sound in your ears resembles a beating or throbbing.
Head and hearing trauma
Anyone who has ever banged their heads probably remembers the sharp ringing in their ears upon impact and the disorientation for a while afterward. This is due to a slight concussion of the brain when the neurons seem to be “at a loss.” As a rule, everything is back to normal after a few minutes. If the impact was strong or repeated several times, then after it there often remain persistent disturbances in the connections between neurons. This, in turn, results in a constant ringing sensation in the ears (tinnitus).
Doctors note that some diseases have complications, which lead to tinnitus. The most dangerous among them are diabetes, anemia, the insufficient activity of the thyroid gland, problems with blood circulation. If they are not properly treated or are severe, the disorders can lead to additional hearing problems. Such medical causes of tinnitus are very common among patients and require special treatment.
The human middle ear has 2 of the smallest muscles in the body, the spasm of which can lead to tinnitus. Such a spasm can occur during stressful situations, when a person experiences a feeling of fear, or, for example, when listening to loud music.
Side effects of certain medications
Certain medications have many side effects. Some of them can negatively affect hearing, including causing tinnitus. If you do not want to experience this problem, then take the following groups of medicines with special care:
Quinine drugs (against malaria)
Certain non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as Aspirin)
Of course, taking such potent drugs is possible only with a doctor’s prescription. If you feel unwell, you should immediately inform your doctor about it.
Tinnitus causes vary significantly and are not always obvious. Therefore, tinnitus evaluation & treatment is often carried out not only by an audiologist but also by other doctors (cardiologist, neuropathologist, etc.).
Which factors are a common cause of tinnitus?
In addition to common causes for tinnitus, certain risk factors increase the likelihood of the problem. Among them:
Age-related hearing loss
With age, a person gradually loses his hearing. This process is called presbycusis. And as I wrote above, tinnitus often appears along with hearing loss. It should be noted that the more severe the degree of hearing loss, the higher the likelihood of tinnitus.
Ear hygiene plays a very important role in hearing health. Earwax performs a protective function, but its excessive accumulation leads to contamination of the ear canal, which negatively affects hearing, leading to hearing loss and tinnitus.
Gender also plays an important role in the development of tinnitus. According to statistics, men are more likely to develop the problem.
Smoking, alcohol abuse, or a sedentary lifestyle do not directly affect tinnitus. But bad habits negatively affect the general health of a person, which ultimately can lead, along with other diseases, to the appearance of tinnitus.
The use of foods saturated with artificial colors, preservatives, and thickeners, which only improve their appearance, negatively affects human health. Strive to consume a minimum of unhealthy foods in your diet.
Try to minimize the risk factors for tinnitus, so as not to suffer from this difficult problem!
Correct help with tinnitus
Tinnitus greatly affects the quality of life. If the problem continues for a long time, then patients often face additional physical and psychological problems. To get rid of the problem, it is necessary to eliminate the tinnitus causes. For this, specialists carry out comprehensive tinnitus diagnostics, which allows you to see the whole range of health problems. The prognosis for recovery depends on its cause.
Remember that tinnitus is very unpleasant. Therefore, you should be as careful as possible and try not to expose yourself to risk factors, which could cause the problem!
About Dr Zhanneta Shapiro
Dr Zhanneta Shapiro received her Masters of Science from Brooklyn College in 2005 and completed her Doctorate of Audiology from Florida University in May 2008. Her graduate training was in various hospitals in the tri-state area and a residency period completed at Ear Nose and Throat Associates of New York. [ Learn More ]