Tinnitus: Understanding the Causes, Signs and Treatment Methods

May 3, 2023

Article by Hearing Partners, contributed by Jennifer Lee, Senior Clinical Audiologist at Hearing Partners

If you’re hearing sounds in your ears that only you can hear, it’s possible that you’re experiencing tinnitus. Globally, over 750 million people grapple with this condition, as indicated by statistics.

Tinnitus is characterised by sounds originating within one’s own body, and it can result from either congenital or acquired (environmental) factors. It’s crucial that tinnitus doesn’t impede communication, concentration, or sleep quality.

The sounds heard by people experiencing tinnitus may vary, with some hearing a singular sound and others hearing a combination of sounds. Common tinnitus sounds include ringing, buzzing, and pulsing or rhythmic heartbeat-like noises.

Acquired tinnitus has a number of underlying causes, including hearing loss, Meniere’s disease, and other related health conditions. Fortunately, there are solutions to alleviate its symptoms. Read on to learn about what tinnitus is all about, including its types, causes, and treatment methods.

Classifications and Causes of Tinnitus

Tinnitus can be classified into 2 primary categories: subjective and objective tinnitus. Various factors can give rise to tinnitus, and understanding your specific triggers can aid your hearing care professional in devising the most effective treatment method.

Learn more about the types of tinnitus and their causes below.

Subjective tinnitus

Approximately 95% of tinnitus cases fall into the category of subjective tinnitus. People affected by this condition perceive ringing, buzzing, or humming sounds that are only heard by them.

  • Somatic tinnitus

Somatic tinnitus, a form of subjective tinnitus, can arise from pressure or movement of the jaw, neck, or head. It’s frequently linked to medical conditions like temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), restless leg syndrome, or Paget’s disease of the bone.

Causes of subjective tinnitus

Subjective tinnitus is usually a result of hearing-related issues and may serve as an indicator of underlying hearing health concerns. Here are some common reasons:

  • Hearing loss

The leading cause of subjective tinnitus is conductive or sensorineural hearing loss.

Conductive hearing loss commonly results from factors such as outer ear infections, accumulation of fluid in the middle ear, or an accumulation of earwax. Conversely, sensorineural hearing loss often arises from exposure to loud noises or age-related hearing loss.

If you’re uncertain about the type of hearing loss you’re experiencing, an audiologist can help you accurately diagnose your condition.

  • Meniere’s disease

Described as a disorder affecting the inner ear, Meniere’s disease has an impact on both balance and hearing. This condition can lead to symptoms such as dizziness, a sensation of fullness in the ears, hearing loss, and tinnitus.

  • Acoustic neuroma

An acoustic neuroma is a non-cancerous tumour that grows on the vestibulocochlear nerve. This nerve is responsible for transmitting sound and balance information from the inner ear to the brain.

As an acoustic neuroma grows, it can exert pressure on the vestibulocochlear nerve, resulting in single-sided deafness, tinnitus, and dizziness.

  • Drugs

Ototoxic drugs can potentially harm the ears, leading to adverse effects such as hearing loss, tinnitus, or unsteady movements. There are over 600 over-the-counter and prescription medications that can either cause or exacerbate tinnitus.

Some of these drugs include:

  • Certain antibiotics (e.g. aminoglycosides)
  • Loop diuretics and water pills
  • Certain cancer treatments
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

When ototoxic drugs are used briefly, tinnitus induced by these medications is typically temporary and tends to resolve once the drug is discontinued. However, prolonged or long-term use of ototoxic drugs can lead to permanent hearing loss and persistent tinnitus.

  • Head trauma

Tinnitus can be caused by trauma to the head, including conditions such as multiple sclerosis, closed head injuries, skull fractures, and whiplash.

  • Metabolic abnormalities

Tinnitus is linked to various metabolic abnormalities, including conditions such as hyperlipidemia, hypothyroidism, anaemia, hyperthyroidism, and deficiencies in vitamin B12 and zinc.

  • Psychological disorders

Individuals dealing with depression, sleep disorders, and high levels of work or life-related stress are at a greater risk of experiencing tinnitus. These psychological disorders can lead to increased anxiety and self-consciousness about their tinnitus.

Objective tinnitus

Objective tinnitus is a relatively uncommon condition that affects fewer than 5% of individuals with tinnitus. Those who have objective tinnitus may hear rhythmic pulsations in sync with their heartbeat.

These sounds are audible not only to the affected individual but also to the audiologist during a physical examination.

Causes of objective tinnitus

This type of tinnitus is frequently associated with underlying vascular or muscular disorders. It can suggest the presence of an underlying health issue that requires treatment and attention.

  • Vascular abnormalities

Vascular abnormalities can affect the blood vessels near the ear, leading to changes in blood flow. Individuals with vascular abnormalities often perceive a sound resembling a pulsating heartbeat in their ears.

  • Neurological disorders

Nervous disorders, such as palatal myoclonus (rapid contractions of the soft palate muscles), can affect the auditory function of the brain and result in tinnitus.

  • Eustachian tube dysfunction

Eustachian tube dysfunction can cause fluid to accumulate in the middle ear, potentially resulting in tinnitus.

Diagnosing Tinnitus

An audiologist or an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor can accurately diagnose if you’re suffering from tinnitus. At Hearing Partners, our audiologists will conduct a comprehensive assessment to determine if you require medical treatment.

Following a review of your medical history, a hearing test (to assess potential hearing loss) and a questionnaire (to gauge its perceived severity) will be administered. Subsequently, we’ll determine if hearing aids are necessary or if a referral is needed.

Once the root cause of your tinnitus is identified, we’ll offer recommendations for the most effective methods to manage your tinnitus symptoms.

Suspect that you may have tinnitus?

If you think that you or a loved one is experiencing tinnitus, make an appointment with our audiologists today.

How to Manage Tinnitus

Living with tinnitus can result in many inconveniences and difficulties. Fortunately, there are methods that can help you manage this condition.

Hearing aids

Behind-the-ear hearing aids

May be used to manage: Subjective tinnitus

The extent of your hearing loss often correlates to the severity of your tinnitus. As such, all degrees of hearing loss should be taken seriously.

Depending on your needs and condition, your audiologist may recommend Oticon hearing aids with Tinnitus SoundSupport™ to assist in tinnitus relief. The software of this hearing aid is specially designed to play different sounds to help distract you from your tinnitus. Examples of such sounds include white noise and soothing ocean waves.

Your audiologist can share more information about tinnitus and the ways to relieve it. Schedule an appointment at any of our clinics today.

Earwax removal

If your tinnitus is caused by a buildup of earwax, your audiologist may recommend earwax removal or ear irrigation to clean your ears. Getting rid of the earwax that’s blocking your ear canal can help to alleviate your symptoms.

Note: Hearing Partners does not provide ear cleaning or earwax removal services.

Sound therapy

In a quiet setting, tinnitus can become more intolerable, impacting your sleep and concentration. Sound therapy is a technique that helps divert your attention away from your tinnitus by introducing neutral sounds into the environment. This can be done in several ways:

  • Simple methods such as turning on the TV or opening the window
  • White noise generators or specialised sound generators that create natural sounds
  • Pillows with built-in speakers

Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT)

TRT is a specialised treatment approach that aims to retrain the brain’s response to tinnitus, thereby enabling individuals to gradually ignore and become less aware of the noise. This therapy combines counselling with intensive sound therapy to achieve these outcomes.

Self-help techniques

Certain self-help methods can be effective in managing tinnitus. They include:

  • Joining a tinnitus support group to learn how others are coping with tinnitus
  • Doing exercises that can help your hearing, such as neck stretches
  • Taking up new hobbies to distract you from your tinnitus
  • Sticking to a consistent sleep schedule, as a lack of sleep can make tinnitus worse

How to Prevent Tinnitus

To reduce your risk of developing tinnitus, try these simple prevention steps.

Wear earplugs in noisy environments

The louder the sound, the more harmful it is to our hearing health – sounds above 105dB can instantly cause hearing loss and tinnitus. Continuous exposure to loud sounds (above 85dB) can lead to Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) and permanent tinnitus.

If you can’t avoid loud places and activities, we recommend wearing earplugs to protect your ears.

Practise safe listening

Increasing the volume while enjoying music can enhance your listening experience, but it’s crucial to exercise caution. Prolonged exposure to high volumes can lead to hearing loss.

As such, it’s important to adjust the volume and duration of your listening session appropriately. A general guideline is to keep your headphone volumes below 70% to help protect your hearing.

Prevent ear infections

Ear infections can lead to inflammation and damage to your ear structures, potentially contributing to the onset of tinnitus. To minimise the risk of ear infections, it’s essential to keep your hearing aids or earplugs clean.

Additionally, it’s important to keep your ears dry because excess moisture can foster the growth of bacteria. This, in turn, increases the likelihood of ear infections. Moreover, if you experience recurrent ear infections, we recommend visiting your ENT doctor immediately to address the issue.

Visit an audiologist

If you suspect that you may be at risk of developing tinnitus, schedule an appointment with an audiologist at Hearing Partners. We’ll evaluate your hearing health and recommend the best ways to prevent tinnitus based on your lifestyle and habits.

FAQs About Tinnitus

Who is at risk of tinnitus?

Anyone can experience tinnitus, however, the following groups of people are at a higher risk of this condition:

  • People who work in environments frequently exposed to loud noises, such as those in the construction or music industry
  • The elderly
  • People who smoke and/or drink alcohol
  • People with high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems, obesity, or head injuries

At what age does tinnitus occur?

Tinnitus can occur at any age. However, it’s more common in people over 65 years of age.

What are the complications of tinnitus?

Tinnitus can cause the following complications:

  • Anxiety
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Emotional distress
  • Depression
  • Memory problems
  • Difficulty sleeping

If tinnitus is affecting your daily life, we recommend speaking to an audiologist or ENT doctor as soon as possible to learn how to properly manage your condition.

Can tinnitus be cured?

It depends on the cause of your tinnitus. It’s best to consult an audiologist or otolaryngologist as they can make an accurate diagnosis based on your condition and determine whether your tinnitus can be cured.

Suspect you might have hearing loss?

Your ears play an important role in your daily life and should not be neglected.

Speak to our hearing care professionals regarding your concerns today.

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