Tinnitus is the auditory perception of a phantom sound. Tinnitus is a symptom, not a disease. Tinnitus might sound like buzzing, crickets, hissing, static, swooshing, or roaring. It can be a combination of sounds as well and can fluctuate in loudness. It is thought that tinnitus is produced by an overstimulation of the hair cells in the inner ear, causing the brain to react to a sound that is not externally present. It is these nonauditory pathways (brain) where the tinnitus resides and is maintained.
The part of the brain believed to be responsible for tinnitus is in the limbic system. The limbic system is responsible for our emotions. The brain tends to react negatively to the tinnitus because the sound is perceived as a threat. The limbic system is also thought to be responsible for memory. Having a “bad” experience/reaction to the tinnitus can cause each interaction to be the same. We anticipate that something is going to be negative, therefore it is.
Tinnitus typically occurs due to loud noise exposure. Some of the more common medical issues that can also cause tinnitus include ear problems, high blood pressure, TMJ disorder, cervical misalignment, high cholesterol, and Ménière’s disease. Some medications can also contribute to the tinnitus and should be reviewed with the prescribing physician.
About 17% of the population experiences some type of tinnitus. On average, only 23% of those with tinnitus seek medical help. If there are any underlying medical conditions, these should always be treated first. It is possible for the tinnitus to continue even after medical treatment is completed. At that point, or if there are no underlying medical conditions that can be treated, tinnitus therapy would be the next step.
There are several tinnitus therapy options available, but all have the same goal: habituation. Habituation is the process of “ignoring” or becoming accustomed to something without exerting any conscious effort. In the case of tinnitus, this means reducing how often you are aware of the presence of that sound and reducing its negative effects.
But what about those supplements seen at pharmacies or on TV? There are no FDA-approved supplements on the market for tinnitus. All supplements are considered “dietary” and do not have to be approved by the FDA. They are typically a combination of vitamins and herbs. ALWAYS consult your primary physician before starting any supplements, as many can negatively interact with other medications you may be taking.
What can you do to reduce the effects of tinnitus?
- Reduce salt and caffeine intake
- Reduce stress by using relaxation techniques
- Avoid quiet spaces by use of noise machines or fans
- Use hearing protection around loud noises and/or reduce volume if possible
- Ignore it. The more you focus or pay attention to it, the more present it will be. Play some music. Bake cookies. Take a walk.
Most people will be able to manage their tinnitus on their own. For those who can’t, tinnitus counseling and therapy would be recommended. This is typically done with an audiologist, but it might also include a psychologist, medical practitioner, dentist, and/or sleep specialist. The professionals involved are determined by the effects the tinnitus has on your life.
Finally, 90% of those with tinnitus also have hearing loss. The most effective treatment for tinnitus lies in treating the hearing loss. Get a comprehensive hearing evaluation from a certified audiologist and learn all you can. You and your audiologist will come up with a treatment plan that is tailored to your needs.
Written by Dr. Stephanie Else