Tinnitus (head noise) is a common and annoying experience. There are some 50 million Americans who experience it. Tinnitus may be a steady, constant sound or may come and go. It may be soft or loud and may sound like a ringing, buzzing, hissing or something else. Typically, only the individual with tinnitus can hear it, but there are rare types that can also be heard by others. There was a study done in the 1950's where normally hearing individuals who had no complaints of tinnitus were placed in a sound treated booth and asked to report what they heard. About 94% of them described hearing sounds described similarly to those identified by persons complaining of tinnitus. Thus, under the right conditions and when asked to focus on the issue, most people are able to detect internally generated noises.
Tinnitus is a symptom, not a disease. There appear to be many possible causes and it is often difficult or impossible to determine what caused a specific case. Most (~85%) people with tinnitus also have hearing loss. The tinnitus does not cause the hearing loss or make it worse. Rather, the tinnitus is often caused by the same thing that caused hearing loss. With hearing loss, tinnitus may be noticeable because you no longer hear surrounding (ambient) sounds as well as previously that helped push any tinnitus from the foreground to the background of your attention.
If you experience tinnitus, it is important that you obtain a thorough audiometric evaluation to determine if there is anything that can or should be attended to. In the vast majority of cases, the symptom is completely innocuous and requires nothing more than reassurance. However, do not let that fact cause you to skip a thorough initial workup, because tinnitus sometimes does signal a condition that needs treatment. That is especially true for unilateral (one side only) tinnitus when there is no logical explanation for it.
A number of different tests may be done to clarify the nature of your tinnitus and help us know how to better treat you. Sometimes, it is necessary to refer you to other specialists to assist with the work-up and/or treatment.
Sometimes-but not often-a specific cause of the tinnitus can be identified and corrected. Most often, the specific cause and a cure cannot be identified. In that case, the goal of treatment is typically to help you learn to better live with (and ignore) your tinnitus.
An estimated 80% of people with tinnitus are able to successfully disregard it and report only that they have it, but simply ignore it. Around 20% of people with tinnitus are less able to successfully ignore it and require special help to break the vicious cycle of attending to it, being bothered by it, spending more time attending to it, becoming more irritated by it, etc. to the point that it is a major issue in their lives. It is this 20% that often seek help from various sources to aid them in coping with the symptom.
A number of specific suggestions may be helpful to you in reducing the effects of tinnitus in your daily life:
Some drugs that can
cause tinnitus (or make it worse) include:
There are no drugs that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for tinnitus treatment. However, drugs may be prescribed for the anxiety or depression that are sometimes associated with tinnitus.
There is no evidence that tinnitus worsens with age. In fact, most people find they are bothered less by their tinnitus over time. This may, in part, be due to the fact that people learn mechanisms for better coping with the annoyance.
Your audiologist can give you further guidance in dealing with your tinnitus.
If you are interested in being part of a self-help group, you might consider joining the American Tinnitus Association, P.O. Box 5, Portland, OR 97207, 503-248-9985