Almost everyone has probably experienced tinnitus--a sudden ringing in the ear--at some point. Learn more about this extremely common condition here.
Tinnitus is the perception of sudden ringing in the ear without an external source. For some people, it sounds like buzzing or ringing, but it can also sound like chirping, hissing, roaring, shrieking or whistling. The sound seems to come from inside the head, one or both ears or somewhere in the distance.
For tinnitus to be so called, it should be phantom noises not associated with any psychiatric condition. While it can be a condition on its own, tinnitus is often a symptom of some underlying disease.
Almost everyone has had temporary tinnitus, often after being exposed to very loud sound as in concerts or factories. If tinnitus happens with no external stimulus, and for more than six months, it is considered chronic. Chronic tinnitus affects 8-25.3 percent of people in the US, most of whom are elderly or have some hearing loss.
This article discusses some facts about tinnitus so that you can understand it better. Read on!
1. The Two Types of Tinnitus
Tinnitus, while bothersome, isn’t often caused by something serious. It worsens with age but improves or stops once you get the right treatment.
Tinnitus presents in two ways:
- Subjective tinnitus – this is the most common, and it refers to tinnitus only you can hear. It indicates problems in your inner, middle or outer ear, or problems with the auditory nerve or auditory pathways.
- Objective tinnitus – this refers to sounds your doctor can hear when they examine you. It is rare and is usually caused by muscle contractions, middle ear bone issues or blood vessel issues.
Treatment can target the underlying cause or mask or reduce the sound to enable the patient to concentrate.
2. Tinnitus versus Hallucinatory Sounds
Most patients of tinnitus usually hear pure tones (like whistling) or frequency ranges (like white noise). However, a few patients report to hearing complex or unusual sounds like voices or music.
Typically, these would be considered hallucinatory sounds and need psychiatric evaluation. But one study has shown that such tinnitus may not have a psychotic background. Instead, it is strongly related to the patient’s emotional experiences or perception of their present situation.
3. Epidemiology of Tinnitus
People of any age, race, gender or background can suffer from tinnitus. And many of them can develop tinnitus without an underlying cause or external stimulus, such as prolonged exposure to loud noise.
However, it is more common among the elderly or people with pre-existing hearing problems. Although many people with tinnitus worry about deafness, most patients recover without any further hearing loss.
4. How Patients Seek Treatment
Because of the association between hearing noises and psychosis, many people with tinnitus do not speak to friends or family about the problem. They do not seek professional help either, hoping that the noises will disappear.
Whether or not tinnitus disappears depends on the cause. For instance, if it is caused by medication, it will stop when you stop taking that medication. However, if you have tinnitus, you should talk to a professional so that they determine why and you get the right treatment.
5. Loud Noise Can Cause Permanent Tinnitus
A recent study has shown that as many as 1 in 5 teenagers develops permanent tinnitus as a result of prolonged exposure to loud music. In addition, almost 75 percent have temporary tinnitus. Only 5 percent of the participants said that they use hearing protection when around loud noises, such as in concerts.
With permanent tinnitus, the patient hears ringing all the time. Now you have one more reason to throw away those earphones.
6. Smoking Can Induce Tinnitus
You already know that smoking is bad for your heart and lungs, but did you know it can cause or worsen hearing problems? Recent studies have shown a correlation between smoking and hearing loss. Toxic chemicals in cigarettes have been linked to tinnitus and repeated ear infections.
Now, correlation doesn't necessarily mean causation, but the data is compelling and further research to determine the association is on-going. Part of the correlation can come from the fact that smokers tend to be around leisure noise (clubs, etc.) and are likely to reject ear protection.
7. Tinnitus from Stress and Depression
Anxiety and stress are frequent contributors to tinnitus. People who suffer from depression, anxiety disorders, high-stress levels or panic attacks report more incidences of tinnitus. Among smokers, stress can increase the urge to smoke and worsen existing tinnitus symptoms.
This study showed that depression or perceived distress made tinnitus worse, and participants reported reduced symptoms when they were relaxed or calm.
8. Tinnitus in War Veterans
Tinnitus is prevalent in war veterans, with over 60 percent of war veterans reporting symptoms. In fact, it is the biggest disability reported, as more than 1.5 million are getting disability benefits as a result of tinnitus.
This is probably because of the high noise levels encountered while they were in active service: aircraft, machinery, explosions, gunfire, etc. You also need to learn more about it if you're in the military.
9. Drugs That Cause or Worsen Tinnitus
Some drugs have tinnitus as a side effect. Usually, stopping the medication will stop the symptoms. They include:
- NSAIDs – pain medication like aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, etc.
- Antibiotics – ciprofloxacin, erythromycin, doxycycline, vancomycin, tobramycin, gentamycin and tetracycline
- Anti-malarial drugs – quinine and chloroquine
- Anti-convulsants – valproic acid and carbamazepine
- Some cancer drugs – vincristine and cisplatin
- Loop diuretics – given via IV in large doses, including furosemide, torsemide, and bumetanide
- Some antidepressants – amitriptyline, imipramine, and clomipramine
If you need the medication but suffer tinnitus when using it, talk to your doctor to see if you can get a different drug.
10. Tinnitus in the Auditory Pathway
Tinnitus can develop anywhere along the auditory pathway. It is commonly caused by hair cell damage in the cochlea. The hair cells transform sound waves to nerve signals transmitted to the brain.
If the brain cannot interpret those signals, it will “turn up” the signals in an effort to interpret them – the way you ask someone to speak louder so you can hear them. The resultant electrical noise presents as tinnitus.
Sudden Ringing in the Ear - Final Thoughts
Tinnitus symptoms can be aggravated or reduced by your general health condition. If you notice tinnitus, seek medical help, but also, take stock of your lifestyle/habits: sleeping, diet, exercise and stress levels.
Therapy and/or medication to deal with depression, insomnia, anxiety, and pain can also reduce tinnitus. If you're exposed to loud noise and you have a sudden ringing in the ear, invest in protective devices like earmuffs or earplugs to prevent hearing loss.
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