Living with Tinnitus
It’s the strange word for a condition that affects millions. Doctors estimate that 15 to 20 percent of us will deal with ringing in one, or both, of our ears in our lifetime. It’s called tinnitus. Tinnitus has multiple causes and varies in severity from person to person. Ask anyone who’s experienced it, and you’ll find out just how frustrating and challenging this condition can be.
Suzanne P is a 59-year-old wife, mother and grandmother- who first noticed something was not quite right when she was just 54 years old. A friend recommended she see an ENT who gave her a hearing test. The diagnosis was high-frequency hearing loss and tinnitus. “I hear it in both ears all the time. I hear it over a somewhat loud radio in the car and at times it will change levels and get louder” says Suzanne. Her current treatment includes two common sinus medications: Claritin and Flonase. And she’s also on a common anti-depressant intended to help relieve the stress from the ringing in her ears. Unfortunately, in Suzanne’s case, the condition persists to this day and none of the treatments has provided permanent relief.
Suzanne’s ENT has recommended hearing aids as her next step, and she agrees it’s necessary as she works to improve her quality of life.
What to look for:
Suzanne’s experience is hardly unique. Her father also suffers from the same condition. In fact, tinnitus is more common in men in women. But there are no absolutes when it comes to this condition. And not everyone who suffers with tinnitus will describe the problem as “ringing”. Patients describe all kinds of unwanted sounds that interfere with daily life. Sounds may include:
What causes tinnitus?
While many of us assume it’s just a natural part of growing older, there are many potential causes of tinnitus.
*Noise-induced hearing loss
*Ear and sinus infections
*Diseases of the heart or blood vessels
*Hormonal changes in women
There are also 200 medications that are known to cause tinnitus when you start or stop taking them. That list includes NSAID’s- the anti-inflammatories so many of us take every day. And unfortunately, there are also cases where a doctor can’t pinpoint the cause of the ringing.
Help is available.
Treatment options will almost always depend on whether the tinnitus is caused by an underlying health condition. For example, those with noise-related hearing impairments may benefit greatly from hearing aids. Millions of Americans are at risk for this common type of hearing loss including musicians, factory workers and even military service members repeatedly exposed to bomb blasts. Tinnitus has been a common complaint of soldiers returning from Afghanistan.
So how much noise leads to hearing impairment? A continuous noise level of 85 dB can cause permanent or temporary hearing loss. That’s the equivalent of heavy road traffic. Heading to a rock concert? They usually reach 110-120 dB - the same sound intensity can easily be produced in headsets when you listen to your stereo.
For tinnitus patients like Suzanne P, certain types of everyday noise seem to exacerbate the suffering. “One of the worst things is that the noises from fans, vacuum cleaners, any type of obnoxious noise, really, really, bothers me” she says.
Some scientists compare tinnitus to chronic pain that persists even after a bone or injury heals. They’re still studying why the brain creates the illusion of sound in our ears when there really isn’t any. Unfortunately, tinnitus that goes undiagnosed or untreated can lead to chronic hearing, concentration and sleep issues. And patients with the most extreme cases may become depressed due to constant symptoms.
Where to start:
There is currently no cure for tinnitus. But there is help available. The first step to improving the quality of your life is to reach out to a hearing care professional who can evaluate the problem and recommend a course of action.
“Hearing aids can sometimes help people with managing their tinnitus,” according to Doctor of Audiology Jake Hulswit, Au.D., CCC-A. “Imagine looking at a candle in a dark room. Your attention will go right to the candle as the rest of the room is dark. However, if you turn the lights on in the room, your attention is now less directed at the candle. Like tinnitus, the candle itself may be unchanged, but your brain is able to better focus on other things as well. Hearing aids will enrich the sound environment, especially for those with hearing loss, which is like turning the lights on in the room. They do not work for everyone, but many people with tinnitus do find things have gotten more manageable with hearing aid use. “
Hulswit also says that using soothing sounds like rain and ocean waves, or background sounds like white noise and pink noise, can sometimes help with relief from tinnitus as well.
“The goal is to introduce sound at a level that allows you to best focus away from the tinnitus,” Hulswit adds. “Simply turning up the sound too loud to try to “mask” or fully block out the tinnitus usually does not work as the masking sound is now uncomfortably loud and/or just as distracting as the tinnitus was. “
To learn more, talk to a hearing care professional who can assess your individual situation.
You’d never ignore changes in your eyesight or physical wellbeing. And it’s just as important to make regular hearing evaluations a part of your healthcare routine.