What it is
Whether you pronounce it “tin-EH-tis” or “tin-EYE-tis,” tinnitus is that annoying noise in your head that isn’t really there, or more precisely, that perception of sound in the absence of external noise. With over 50 million people, or roughly 10 to 15% of adults in the U.S. reporting symptoms, tinnitus is a common experience. It occurs at a higher rate among those who are exposed to noise on a regular basis and those with hearing loss.
“Subjective tinnitus” frequently occurs as a result of hearing loss; this type of noise cannot be heard by others. Just as a person can experience “phantom pain” after losing a limb, a person can develop tinnitus after experiencing some hearing loss; the brain creates sound to compensate for the loss. The quality of the sound can vary from mild to severe and episodes can vary from sporadic to persistent.
A form of tinnitus referred to as “objective tinnitus” is sometimes actually heard by others and may be due to muscle spasms in the middle ear or to blood vessels surrounding the ear. This form of tinnitus is treated differently than the more common form.
Although most people experience brief episodes that they can ignore, tinnitus can be severe enough to disrupt daily life. In some cases, in addition to causing difficulty in hearing, tinnitus can interfere with concentration and processing thoughts as well as disturbing your sleep and impacting emotions.
How to manage it
If your tinnitus doesn’t resolve quickly, there are some strategies that can help you manage symptoms that persist. The most important point to note is that the more importance you give the symptom (i.e., the more it bothers you), the louder and/or more persistent the sound can get.
In regard to the sound, these are helpful strategies:
- Putting sound back into an ear with hearing loss (hearing aid, masking device) can help reduce the noise associated with tinnitus
- Use a sound generator; being in quiet surroundings or focusing on the noise will make it louder
- Avoid loud sounds or further damage to the ear when possible; use noise protection
- Do control your blood pressure
- Avoid high doses of aspirin as well as Lasix and gentamycin, which can worsen the noise
- Rarely, medications can be tried in severe cases: Antidepressants, anticonvulsants, anxiolytics and intratympanic medications should only be used on the recommendation of a clinician familiar with your circumstances
- Occasional use of sleep aids or sedatives can help when the noise is troublesome