Tinnitus is a condition in which the patient suffers from ringing in the ears. This ringing may come in many forms, ranging from chirping or whistling to buzzing or hissing. This noise may be intermittent or it may be heard continuously and vary in loudness. When background noise is low, the symptoms appear to increase and most patients notice the problem more at night when trying to go to sleep. A few patients report that the sound in the ears beats in time with the heart.
Approximately 50 million adults in the country suffer from this condition. For most, the noise heard in the ears is annoying, but nothing more. In certain situations though, the patient may not be able to concentrate or sleep due to the continuous noise. Work and personal relationships can be affected, leading to psychological distress. Approximately 24% of those affected by tinnitus visit a doctor every year for this condition. Hearing loss does not cause tinnitus and tinnitus does not cause hearing loss, but the two are often seen together.
Tinnitus may be the result of a blockage in the ear or an ear infection. Once this blockage is removed or the infection treated, symptoms disappear. If this is not the case, other treatments will be suggested. These treatments either decrease the ringing in the ears or cover the sound. Certain medications may lead to tinnitus, including aspirin anti-inflammatory drugs and sedatives. Aging is a cause of tinnitus as the cochlea deteriorates as people get older. TMJ syndrome, head or neck injuries and Meniere’s disease all play a role in the development of tinnitus. None of the above are the most common cause of this condition though.
Most patients who develop tinnitus do so after prolonged exposure to loud noises. It is estimated that as may as 90% of people suffering from this condition have hearing loss that is noise-induced. With this prolonged exposure, cells in the cochlea which are sensitive to sound are damaged. This damage is permanent. One exposure to a sudden loud noise may also damage the ears to the extent that tinnitus develops. Fatigue and stress often seem to make the problem worse.
Anyone suffering from tinnitus should seek medical attention. Treatments are available, ranging from removing an ear blockage to surgery. The right course of treatment can only be determined after a complete physical exam and possibly nerve and hearing tests or an MRI or CAT scan. The doctor needs a complete picture of overall health to determine which course of treatment will be most effective for the patient being seen.