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All About Tinnitus: Part I - What is Tinnitus?

The silence we hear when we settle into bed, a quiet hour with a book, or the calming peace of a walk through the woods--silence is a necessary part of life but also something that we often take for granted. Now imagine in those otherwise quiet moments an unending soundtrack of buzzing or ringing.

For sufferers of tinnitus, or the perception of sounds in the ear with no external source, this is a common occurrence. Tinnitus may seem like a minor nuisance, but people who live with this chronic condition know it can disrupt many different areas of a person's life, including relationships, work, and overall health.  

What are the symptoms?

About one in five people have some form of tinnitus, according to the American Tinnitus Association, and it is estimated that between 50 to 60 million Americans experience this condition which is commonly described as a constant, often high-pitched ringing or buzzing in one or both ears. Tinnitus can also be experienced as other sounds, such as a whistle, buzz, click, low roar, static or hiss. It is unique to each individual who experiences it, as in most cases no one else can hear the sound besides them. This bothersome condition is most common in those over the age of 55, and is said to be more noticeable at night or during quiet moments.

Is it temporary or long-term?

Tinnitus is not technically a disease but rather a symptom of a problem within the auditory system, and it is strongly associated with hearing loss. Many have experienced the ringing or buzzing of this condition briefly, especially following exposure to loud noise such as a concert. Short-term tinnitus of this kind, though it is an indication of some hearing damage, is not typically a cause for concern. Some medications such as antibiotics that are ototoxic--or toxic to the ear--can also cause temporary tinnitus which may disappear once the medication is discontinued; however, these medications may result in hearing damage if taken long-term. Some of those with tinnitus hear steady and constant sounds, while for others the sound may pulsate or be more intermittent. Tinnitus that persists longer than six months is considered chronic, and it is this kind of tinnitus that has the potential to impact everyday life severely, leading to stress, anxiety, insomnia and depression if left untreated.  

What types of tinnitus are there?

Tinnitus is classified into two main types, based on what the potential causes may be.

Subjective tinnitus makes up 95 percent of all cases, and is defined as when the sounds can only be heard by the person experiencing tinnitus. Hearing loss from prolonged exposure to loud noises, such as in the workplace, or hearing loss that typically occurs as part of the normal aging process is thought to be the primary cause of subjective tinnitus. When hair cells in the inner ear are damaged, the brain doesn’t receive the auditory signals that it is expecting, and provides a sound to compensate for those missing signals. If hearing loss is in the high-frequency range, a person may hear high sounds, and low-frequency hearing loss will result in a lower range of sounds.

Objective tinnitus occurs when someone else—such as a doctor—can also hear the sounds that a person with tinnitus is experiencing. This rare form of tinnitus is typically linked to cardiovascular issues, such as damaged blood vessels or a heart murmur. Pulsatile tinnitus, or hearing one’s heartbeat in the ear, can be caused by temporary blockage or pressure in the ear due to infection, but can also, in rare cases, be a sign of a serious medical condition and should therefore be evaluated by a medical professional if it persists.

Next time, check back for tinnitus solutions and hearing aids that offer tinnitus therapy!