Tinnitus: The Sound of Silence
Grace Weatherby
/ Categories: WELLNESS, 2024

Tinnitus: The Sound of Silence

Whether you pronounce it tin-a-tus or tin-eye-tus (both are correct, by the way), one thing people living with this condition can agree on is that it’s annoying. An audiological and neurological condition experienced by more than 25 million American adults; tinnitus is the perception of sound when no actual external noise is present. 

For some people, the sound is perceived as a ringing, buzzing, or hissing noise while others hear a roaring, whistling, or whooshing sound in one or both ears. The volume of tinnitus can vary from soft to loud and may vary throughout the day. In addition, the pitch of the noise may also change. While many people learn to live/cope with the condition, 2 million Americans experience a range of debilitating reactions to the often-perpetual noise. For those individuals, tinnitus can lead to:

- Fatigue

- Stress

- Problems sleeping

- Trouble concentrating

- Memory problems

- Depression

- Anxiety and irritability

- Headaches

- Problems with work and family life

The causes of tinnitus are not well understood. However, it is understood to be not a disease, but rather a symptom of some other underlying health condition.

Recent research out of Harvard Medical School suggests that damage to the cochlear nerve may be behind some cases of tinnitus. The findings suggests that with less sound coming in, the brain compensates by generating phantom noise.

While frequently linked to hearing loss (90 percent of tinnitus cases occur with an underlying hearing loss), there are roughly 200 different health disorders that can generate tinnitus as a symptom. Some common ones include:

- Age-related hearing loss

- Noise-induced hearing loss

- Obstructions in the middle ear (earwax, hair, dirt, foreign objects)

- Sinus pressure (from a severe cold, flu, or infection)

- Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder

- Injury to the head or neck

- Traumatic brain injury

- Ménière’s disease

- Blood vessel problems (high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, etc.)

Chronic conditions (diabetes, migraines, thyroid disorders, anemia, and certain autoimmune disorders)

- Side effect of prescription medication*

*For a list of medications linked to tinnitus click here.

Given the range of potential causes, treating tinnitus is difficult if not impossible. There is currently no scientifically validated cure for most types of tinnitus. If an underlying cause, such as high blood pressure, TMJ, or injury is identified, you may be able to treat that and find some relief from tinnitus.

Other therapy and treatment options for tinnitus include:

- Hearing aids used for sound amplification

- Hearing aids used to mask the sound of tinnitus

- Cochlear implants

- Behavioral therapy

If you have tinnitus, set up an appointment with your primary care doctor, who can check for earwax or fluid from an ear infection that could be blocking your ear canal. You may be referred to and otolaryngologist (commonly called an ENT—an ear, nose, and throat doctor). An ENT can perform additional exams intended to the determine the source of your issue. They may also perform imaging or refer you to an audiologist, who can measure your hearing and evaluate your tinnitus.

To learn more about tinnitus or to connect with a volunteer peer support network, visit the American Tinnitus Association.

 

Allison Niemi, MD, is a member of the care team at SVMC’s Pownal Campus.

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