Tinnitus is a sound in a persons ears, that no one else is able to hear. This may take form as chirping, clicking, buzzing, static. A number of health conditions can cause or worsen tinnitus such as exposure to loud noise, medication, hearing loss, ear wax, stress, depression, high blood pressure, acoustic neuromas and many more.
Tiny, delicate hairs in your inner ear move in relation to the pressure of sound waves entering the ear canal. This triggers hair cells to release an electrical signal through the auditory or hearing nerve to your brain. Your brain interprets these signals as sound. If the hair cells inside your inner ear are bent or broken, they can "leak" random electrical impulses to your brain, causing tinnitus.
1. Does tinnitus cause hearing loss?
No – tinnitus is a symptom and not a disease. Many people commonly confuse tinnitus as being the cause or underlying condition. Hearing loss is either conductive (problem with outer or middle ear) or sensorineural (problem with inner ear) and classified by different categories: mild, moderate, severe and profound. Hearing loss is a complex process and due to the personal and unique nature of each tinnitus condition, proper evaluation and specialized treatment is necessary.
However, in many cases tinnitus accompanies hearing loss. Because hearing loss can be caused by noise damage to the ear, an individual can get both hearing loss and tinnitus from noise damage. However the two do not always occur together. There are many who have no measurable hearing loss but have tinnitus. There is always ongoing research to regenerate hair cells and what implications there are for both tinnitus and hearing loss.
2. How many people have tinnitus?
50 million people in the United States experience tinnitus to some degree. Of these, about 16 million have it severe enough tinnitus to seek medical attention and about two million patients are so seriously debilitated that they cannot function on a "normal," day-to-day basis.
Noise is the leading cause of tinnitus and our world has gotten progressively noisier. Noise is in abundance not only in recreational situations like concerts and sporting events, but many face extreme noise on-the-job. Firefighters are one of the many emergency service personnel at risk for developing tinnitus.
3. What causes tinnitus?
We have made tremendous advances through research, based on what is known about the auditory (hearing) system - sound is detected by the ear and processed by the brain. On the other hand, the exact physiological cause or causes of tinnitus are not always known. There are, however, several likely sources, all of which are known to trigger or worsen tinnitus.
- Noise exposure - Exposure to loud noises can damage and even destroy hair cells, called cilia, in the inner ear. Once damaged, these hair cells cannot be renewed or replaced.
- Head and neck trauma - Physical trauma to the head and neck can induce tinnitus. Other symptoms include headaches, vertigo, and memory loss.
- Certain disorders, such as hypo- or hyperthyroidism, Meniere's disease, Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, and thoracic outlet syndrome, can have tinnitus as a symptom. When tinnitus is a symptom of another disorder, treating the disorder can help alleviate the tinnitus.
- Certain types of tumors
- Wax build-up
- Jaw misalignment
- Cardiovascular disease
- Ototoxicity - Some medications are ototoxic, that is, the medications are harmful or damaging to the ear. Other medications will produce tinnitus as a side effect without damaging the inner ear. Effects, which can depend on the dosage of the medication, can be temporary or permanent. Before taking any medication, make sure that your prescribing physician is aware of your tinnitus, and discuss alternative medications that may be available.
- Pulsatile tinnitus - Rare type of tinnitus that sounds like a rhythmic pulsing in the ear, typically in time with one's heartbeat. This kind of tinnitus can be caused by abnormal blood flow in arteries or veins close to the inner ear, brain tumors or irregularities in brain structure.
The American Tinnitus Association
The American Tinnitus Association is a great resource for unbiased information.
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