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Causes of Tinnitus

Tinnitus is defined as hearing a ringing, buzzing or whooshing noise that originate in the ear or the head and is typically only heard by the person experiencing the condition. 

Though tinnitus is usually not dangerous, as it is not abnormal to occasionally experience this perception. When tinnitus is persistent, occurs suddenly and doesn't diminish, or is present on only one side of the head, it can be a symptom of a health problem or underlying condition. (Yes, tinnitus is a symptom!) Tinnitus can cause many stressful side effects, including fatigue, sleep problems, concentration difficulty, memory problems, depression, anxiety and irritability. Though it's not necessarily serious, it can negatively impact your quality of life.  

What causes tinnitus?

Tinnitus may have several underlying causes. To get the route of the cause, you or someone you know experiencing tinnitus may consider the following steps:

  1. First complete one or both of the following questionnaires that will help you better understand your tinnitus: The Tinnitus Handicap Inventory and the Tinnitus Thermometer. If you score the inventory and find a handicap or denote a significant impact on the thermometer, discuss these results with an Audiologist or your healthcare provider.
  2. Consult with your primary physician, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant at your next visit and ask if any of your medications, medical conditions or underlying health could be creating or increasing the tinnitus. Your provider may begin investigating the condition by first finding out what kind of tinnitus you suffer from. There are two general types of tinnitus: subjective and objective tinnitus. Subjective tinnitus means that only you can hear the noise or ringing in your ears. Objective tinnitus means that it may be possible for your physician to also hear the noise or ringing while performing an exam (very rare).
  3. Your next step is to then be evaluated by an Audiologist, which is covered by Medicare and many other insurances. At FHBC, your Audiologist will start the evaluation by taking a detailed history of your health and medications. A history of noise exposure is the likely culprit in many cases of bothersome tinnitus as damage (sudden or not) to the auditory system is the cause of tinnitus approximately 90% of the time. A comprehensive hearing evaluation will examine all parts of the ear and identify any abnormalities along the auditory system. A diagnosis at this point in the evaluation may allow us to recommend a course of treatment right away!
  4. The Audiologist may require a consult with an Ear, Nose & Throat physician if further evaluation is recommended.The ENT physician will then perform a head and neck evaluation to look deeper into cause of your tinnitus and make sure there is not an underlying serious medical condition.

Possible causes of tinnitus include:

  • Age-related hearing loss
  • Exposure to loud noise
  • Earwax buildup
  • Abnormal bone growth in the ear
  • Meniere's disease
  • Stress and depression
  • Head or neck injuries
  • Benign tumor of the cranial nerve
  • Certain medications

In some cases, the exact cause of the tinnitus may not be found but serious underlying conditions can be ruled out.

How is tinnitus treated?

While tinnitus can resolve on it’s own, it’s often treated by addressing the underlying condition. Depending on the individual case, some tinnitus treatments may include:

  • Hearing aids (sometimes with tinnitus therapy build-in)
  • Tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT)
  • Acupuncture
  • Hypnosis
  • Music and sound therapy
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Phone apps

It is important to note that there is not one treatment that will work for everyone. Hearing aids are one of the most widely recommended treatments because they can be equipped with sound masking features, enabling the individual to block out the tinnitus sounds. Hearing aids also successfully return sound stimulation to the brain when repairing hearing loss, eliminating the need to create the perceptive sound of tinnitus. We've been very successful with this approach from active and retired military to youngsters with high school-related concussions. 

In general, tinnitus treatments may not make the tinnitus disappear completely, but they often can  make it less noticeable and ease your stress and anxiety from it. Speak with your Audiologist about the best tinnitus treatment option for you.