The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 50 million Americans experience tinnitus. That’s over 15 percent of the U.S. population, or nearly one in every six of us.
So what is this condition that affects so many people — and what can tinnitus sufferers do about it? We cover the basics here.
1. What is tinnitus?
Tinnitus is the medical term for the sensation of hearing sound in your ears when no external sound is present. In most cases, tinnitus is a subjective sound, meaning only the person who has it can hear it. Typically, sufferers describe the sound as “ringing in ears,” though others describe it as hissing, buzzing, whistling, roaring and even chirping.
Just as the sound may be different for each person, the effects of tinnitus are different for every individual, too. For some, it is sporadic and “not that bad.” For others, tinnitus never stops and can make daily life awful.
But one thing everyone with tinnitus has in common is a desire for relief. For most, this desire is so great they will try anything to make their tinnitus less annoying, including resorting to acupuncture, eardrops, herbal remedies, hypnosis and more.
2. What causes tinnitus?
Scientists and health experts have yet to pinpoint the exact cause of tinnitus. But several sources are known to trigger or worsen ringing in the ears, including:
Loud noises and hearing loss — Exposure to loud noises can destroy the non-regenerative cilia (tiny hairs) in the cochlea, causing permanent tinnitus and/or hearing loss. Noise-induced tinnitus is often the result of exposure to loud environmental noises, such as working in a factory setting, with or around heavy machinery, or even a single event like a gunshot or loud concert.
Aging — Natural aging, too, gradually destroys the cilia, and is a leading cause of hearing loss. Tinnitus is a common symptom of age-related hearing loss.
Ototoxic medications – Some prescription medications such as antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, antidepressants, diuretics and others can be ototoxic, meaning they are harmful to the inner ear as well as the nerve fibers connecting the cochlea to the brain.
Hearing conditions – Conditions such as Ménière’s disease are known to cause tinnitus.
Health conditions – Tinnitus has been associated with a number of health conditions, including:
Hypertension (high blood pressure)
Fibromyalgia and chronic pain
Head or neck trauma
Auditory, vestibular or facial nerve tumors
Stress and fatigue
3. Is there a cure for tinnitus?
Currently, there is no known cure for tinnitus. However, according to the American Tinnitus Association (ATA), there are a few established therapies and tinnitus management options. Because there is no cure, the ATA notes, “the primary objective for all currently available tinnitus management options is to lower the perceived burden of tinnitus.”
Hearing aids are one tinnitus management option the ATA lists, with hearing professionals reporting that 60 percent of their tinnitus patients experience relief when wearing them.
Sound therapy is another management option listed by the ATA, which notes that hearing aids are an effective component to most sound therapy protocols.
Sound therapy — and hearing aids — work by masking the tinnitus sound and reducing the perception and intensity of any “ringing in the ears.” This helps take your mind off of your tinnitus, which helps lower its burden.