Tinnitus is a sensation of noise in the ears which may manifest itself as ringing, clicking, or hissing. Tinnitus is extremely common, experienced by as many as one in five individuals. Usually not a serious medical problem, tinnitus can nonetheless be extremely intrusive, affecting the patient's quality of life. It is often considered a symptom, caused by an underlying condition such as a problem with the inner or middle ear. Although it is often not a serious health problem, if tinnitus persists, it can cause fatigue, depression, anxiety, and problems with memory and concentration.
Causes of Tinnitus
There are many potential underlying causes of this condition, one of the most preventable of which is exposure to loud noise. Other possible causes of tinnitus include:
- Age-related hearing loss
- Otosclerosis, or abnormal bone growth in the ear
- Disorder of the circulatory system
- Neurological dysfunction
- Injury or damage to the ear
- Middle ear infection
- Head and neck injuries
- Brain tumor
- Muscle spasms of the middle ear
- Side effect of certain medications
Tinnitus may be caused by something as simple as a piece of earwax blocking the ear canal. In some cases, people develop tinnitus for no obvious reason.
Symptoms of Tinnitus
Almost all cases of tinnitus are subjective, meaning the noises heard by the patient are phantom, generated by the patient's own body and not audible to anyone else. Subjective tinnitus is most often caused by a dysfunction of the auditory nerves or a neurological problem in the brain. In extremely rare cases, tinnitus is objective, meaning the doctor performing a physical examination can hear the noises as well through a stethoscope or ear tube. Objective tinnitus is usually the result of a broken blood vessel or a problem with one of the small bones of the inner ear bone, known as ossicles. Sounds may be heard as:
The noises may vary in pitch and may be heard in one or both ears.
Diagnosis of Tinnitus
Tinnitus is diagnosed through a physical examination and an audiological examination. Imaging tests may include MRI or CT scans to view the inner ear. It is important that a proper diagnosis be made, not only so that the tinnitus can be treated successfully, but so that any serious underlying condition can be addressed.
Treatment of Tinnitus
Treatment for tinnitus initially focuses on treating any underlying conditions that may be causing symptoms. Additional treatments may include:
- Removal of impacted ear wax
- Hearing aids
- Cochlear implants
- White noise devices to mask the phantom noise
- Prescribed medications
Acoustic neural stimulation is a technique that is sometimes used to treat chronic tinnitus. This treatment stimulates a change in the neural circuits in the brain, which helps to desensitize the individual to the tinnitus. In severe cases, surgical repair may be necessary.