It is unsettling to hear a strange sound and not be able to find a source for it. This discomfort is only going to increase when you realize nobody else can hear this noise. Are you losing your mind? A typical reaction would be to just ignore the sound in the hope that it goes away, but what if it doesn’t? If you have developed a ringing in the ears, it could mean this sound is going to be a permanent fixture in your life from now on.
“Tinnitus is a stranger that one day suddenly invades your life – unwanted and unbidden to be sure – but there nevertheless. “
Neil G Bauman (When Your Ears Ring! -6th Edition)
What is It ?
The word ‘tinnitus’ is a Latin word that means ‘ringing’, which is a medical condition where you hear a sound without there being any external source for it. This sensation is commonly described as a ‘ringing’ noise, but it could also be experienced as hissing, whooshing, clicking, buzzing, or pulsing. It can even sound like music playing in the background (this is sometimes referred to as a musical hallucination). The sounds may be heard in only one ear, which would result in ringing in the right ear or ringing in the left ear only, or it could be heard in both ears.
It is easier to understand this condition when you view it as a spectrum. Some people will only hear sounds at certain times of day, or when they perform specific actions (e.g. turning their head rapidly). Although irritating, this noise may have little impact on their daily lives. Other individuals have such a severe form it makes living so unbearable that they become suicidal and some experience intermittent or constant ear ringing. Most sufferers also experience some degree of hearing loss.
“I took tranquillizers and anti-depressants to control my rampaging nerves and stop me from going insane…I would lie awake struggling to shut out the ringing.”
Rajen Nair (Guardian Newspaper April 17, 2008)
What Are The Causes ?
It is also important to understand that these noises in your ears are a symptom and not a disease with a known cure. One of the difficulties of dealing with it is that there are so many possible causes. Sometimes the origin of the problem can be identified and easily treated, but doesn’t happen in a lot of cases. Some of the most common causes would include:
- Damage to the inner ear
- Exposure to loud noise
- Changes to the bones in the middle ear
- Buildup of earwax
- Side-effect of certain drugs (e.g. antidepressants, aspirin, and quinine)
- Hearing loss related to aging
- Meniere’s disease
- A tumor affecting the cranial nerve (acoustic neuroma)
- Build-up of cholesterol in blood vessels close to the middle ear
How is It Diagnosed?
If you hear a noise that nobody else can hear, how can your problem be diagnosed? One of the fears, many of us have when we develop this problem is that medical professionals will dismiss our symptoms as “only in your head”. This condition is not like a broken leg where there is no question that something serious has happened to you.
It is estimated that 20 percent of people in the United States have experienced these sensations (Source: Hearing Health Foundation), and it is a well-established medical condition. Your physician may not be able to offer you immediately a diagnosis as to the cause of the tinnitus, but you can expect to have your symptoms taken seriously. The doctor will usually first try to rule out the most obvious causes such as ear wax build-up or drug side-effects, but it may be necessary for you to be referred to a hearing specialist.
Some of the tests used when diagnosing include:
- Physical examination
- Audiological exam – this involves listening to sounds through headphones
- CT or MRI scans
In order to get as precise a diagnosis as possible, it is important to describe the sound to your doctor. Be as exact as you can (e.g. if you have a pulsating sound, it may indicate a problem with blood vessels).
“…these symptoms change people. It can diminish a person’s ability to carry out basic life functions, such as sleeping and relaxing. It can influence a person’s abiliIn order to get as precise a diagnosis as possible, it is important to describe the sound to your doctor as clearly as you can (e.g. if you describe a pulsating sound, it may indicate a problem with blood vessels).ty to interact with other people.”
Richard S. Tyler
How is It Treated?
There may be a treatment available to eliminate your symptoms, but it depends on the underlying cause. Sometimes, what is required is the ear-wax removal or changing your drug prescription, and this solves the problem for good. If the condition is due to problems with your blood vessels, this can usually be remedied by drugs or surgery.
- If the cause is unknown or untreatable, the focus is going to be in managing your symptoms. Some of the most popular options for this would include:
- If it is related to hearing loss, your symptoms may improve by using a hearing aid.
- A white noise machine produces external sound that can distract your attention away from the annoying internal sound – this can be especially usefulat nighttime when you are trying to sleep.
- A masking device looks a bit like a hearing aid, but it works by creating white noise in your middle ear.
- There are medications such as Alprazolam and amitriptyline that can reduce the severity of tinnitus symptoms.
Living with Tinnitus
“It is not the noise itself but patients’ extremely negative reaction to it that creates daily life impairment…Patients are continuously stressed and fearful of it. It becomes a sign of a danger from which they must escape.”
Rilana F. F. Cima – quoted in ‘Living With a Sound You Can’t Turn Off’ (New York Times, December 3, 2012)
If you become overly anxious about your condition, it is likely to make the situation much worse. This resistance can generate a great deal of stress, and it makes you less able to cope with your symptoms. It means your focus is going to be on escaping something that you can’t escape, and this leads to a feeling of hopeless and despair. Techniques like mindfulness can be useful in helping you come to terms with this affliction. It means you can learn to experience this noise without resistance, so it becomes much easier to manage.
It is important that you can identify factors that worsen and improve your symptoms. You may find the frequency and volume escalate when you are stressed, so you want to be careful about making time for relaxation and avoiding unnecessary challenges. It is also a good idea to avoid caffeine or other stimulants. If you are having trouble sleeping, you can experiment with tools like the white noise machine.
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