Do you hear a ringing, buzzing, roaring, clicking, or hissing sound in your ears? Do you hear this sound often or all the time? Do you feel the sound negatively affects your quality of life? If you answer yes to these questions, you may have tinnitus (tin-NY-tus).
What is tinnitus?
Tinnitus is a conscious awareness of a sound in the ears or head that is not caused by an external noise. It is a symptom associated with many forms of hearing loss, but it can also be a symptom of other health problems. The American Tinnitus Association estimates that 50 million Americans experience tinnitus. This means there are potentially over 1 million people suffering from this condition in or around the Denver Metro area.
Every individual has their own tinnitus tone. It can manifest itself as a high or low frequency sound and its volume may vary over time. Some cases are so severe that it interferes with their daily activities. People with severe cases of tinnitus may find it difficult to hear, work, or even sleep.
What causes tinnitus?
Wax build-up : Too much wax in the ear canal may diminish your ability to hear. This may cause the auditory system to overcompensate and create stimulation (noises) that does not exist – tinnitus.
Stress : Physical and/or emotional stress can act as a catalyst for the onset or worsening of tinnitus.
Loud noise : Exposure to loud noise can cause damage and even destroy hair cells, called cilia, in the inner ear. Once damaged, these hair cells cannot be renewed or replaced and may result in permanent hearing loss and/or tinnitus. Continued exposure can make the tinnitus and hearing loss worse.
Certain disorders : Disorders such as hypo- or hyperthyroidism, Meniere’s disease, Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, and thoracic outlet syndrome, can have tinnitus as a symptom.
Hearing loss : Many people who have tinnitus also have some kind of hearing loss.
Ototoxicity : Some medications are ototoxic, that is, the medications are harmful or damaging to the ear. Other medications will produce tinnitus as a side effect without damaging the inner ear. Effects, which can depend on the dosage of the medication, can be temporary or permanent. Before taking any medication, make sure that your prescribing physician is aware of your tinnitus, and discuss alternative medications that may be available.
Other causes : Allergies, tumors, problems in the heart and blood vessels, jaw misalignment, and head or neck trauma can cause tinnitus.
Why doesn’t the tinnitus go away for some people?
For individuals with long-term tinnitus, one or more of the causes above have, at some point, led to an auditory malfunction. The brain’s attempt to compensate for this malfunction is the start of a vicious cycle.
The auditory cortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for hearing. Every stimulus perceived by the ear is transmitted to and processed by the auditory cortex. The nerve cell assemblies in a specific area of the auditory cortex are ‘tuned’ to a certain frequency, similar to the arrangement of keys on a piano.
No matter what triggers may be responsible for the tinnitus – noise, medication, stress – they all lead to an interruption of the signal transmission from the ear to the auditory cortex. This means that some of your nerve cell assemblies no longer receive any signals. To use a piano as an example: some of the piano’s keys no longer work and cannot be struck by the pianist.
However, these nerve cell assemblies do not react to the lack of stimulus by simply remaining ‘silent’. Instead the nerve cells begin to ‘chatter’ spontaneously and become synchronously attuned to one another.
Once they have become hyperactive and synchronous in this way, the nerve cells simulate a tone that the brain ‘hears’ – the tinnitus tone. Coming back to the piano; the broken keys have created their own permanent tone even without the keys being struck by the pianist.
Over time, this pattern strengthens and the tinnitus becomes permanently anchored – the brain has learned a phantom sound.
The tinnitus treatment at the Sound Relief Hearing Center is aimed at unlearning the tinnitus tone.
What should I do if I have tinnitus?
The first step is to schedule a consultation with one of our specialists. A careful history and audiometric testing will lead to the most likely causes and best treatment for your tinnitus. If medically necessary, we may refer you to another physician to complete the diagnosis.
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