Many people experience tinnitus as a ringing in their head or ears but, in fact, it can take a variety of forms.
What’s that ringing in my ears?
You might experience it as a buzzing, humming, or whistling sound. Some people even describe it as the sensation of a roaring ocean. It can be constant or intermittent and you may experience it in one ear or both. You may even hear it while you are sleeping.
For the vast majority of people, tinnitus is a subjective sound which means that only the person who has it can hear it. It can be soft or loud. Tinnitus originates inside the head and the onset may be gradual or sudden.
What causes tinnitus?
Tinnitus is a symptom, not a disease. There are many possible causes including exposure to loud sounds, earwax blockage and reaction to medications. But some people can develop tinnitus for no obvious reason.
Some causes are:
- Exposure to loud sounds
- Injuries to the head or neck
- Reaction to medication
- Natural aging process
- Sudden impact noises
- Untreated medical conditions
Tinnitus and the brain
So what is it that creates that perception of sound when there is none present?
Sound waves travel through the ear canal to the middle and inner ear. Hair cells in the inner ear help transform the sound waves into electrical signals which then travel to the brain. The brain translates the signals into meaningful information so you can interpret the sounds you hear. When hair cells get damaged, the brain doesn’t receive the accurate signals it needs. There can be different causes to why your hair cells get damaged.
Experts suspect that tinnitus relates to the brain trying to adapt to a loss of hair cells. The brain misinterprets the reduced signals from the ear, resulting in a perception of sound, or tinnitus.
How you think about your tinnitus can influence your emotional reactions. The brain may interpret the sound of tinnitus as something harmful to your well-being. When you respond to tinnitus as a threat you become stressed and anxious.
The stress and anxiety you feel can make the sound of tinnitus seem even more bothersome. This is an understandable and human reaction.
What does tinnitus have to do with hearing loss?
Tinnitus and hearing loss often co-exist. An estimated 90% of tinnitus sufferers experience some degree of hearing loss. Some people with tinnitus may think their trouble hearing is caused by the tinnitus, but in fact it can be due to a hearing loss. The hearing loss is often caused by damaged hair cells in the inner ear.
Hearing aids are helpful for many people who have tinnitus. The better you hear, the less you may notice your tinnitus. With hearing aids, your brain has other sounds to listen to, making your tinnitus less noticeable.
If you have tinnitus symptoms, a hearing evaluation is recommended. You may want to bring a spouse or other close family member since they can be an important source of support.
How is tinnitus affecting my life?
Whatever its cause, tinnitus can often have a significant impact on day to day activities. Some people who experience tinnitus can ignore it most of the time and not allow it to disrupt daily activities.
For others, tinnitus symptoms can worsen to the point that getting a full night’s sleep is not even possible. In turn, a poor night’s sleep affects you negatively the next day and vicious cycle may start. Seeking help with your tinnitus when the symptoms occur is important for your overall health.