What is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus (TIN-ih-tus) is the perception of noise or ringing in the ears. This is a common problem, and affects about 1 in 5 people. Tinnitus is a symptom of an underlying condition, such as age-related hearing loss, ear injury or a circulatory system disorder.
There are two kinds of tinnitus:
Subjective tinnitus is tinnitus only you can hear. This is the most common type of tinnitus. It can be caused by ear problems in your outer, middle or inner ear. It can also be caused by problems with the auditory nerves or the part of your brain that interprets nerve signals as sound.
Objective tinnitus is tinnitus your doctor can hear when they are performing an examination. This type of tinnitus is rare, and may be caused by a blood vessel problem, a middle ear bone condition or muscle contractions.
The phantom noise may vary in pitch from a low roar to a high squeal. It varies from person to person and you may hear it in one or both ears. In some cases, the sound can be so loud that it can interfere with your ability to concentrate or hear actual sound. Tinnitus may be present all the time, or it may come and go.
Make an appointment to see your doctor if :
- You develop tinnitus after an upper respiratory infection, such as a cold, and your tinnitus doesn’t improve within a week.
- You have tinnitus that occurs suddenly or without an apparent cause.
- You have a hearing loss or dizziness with the tinnitus.
A common cause of tinnitus is inner ear cell damage. Tiny, delicate hairs in your inner ear move in relation to the pressure of sound waves. This triggers ear cells to release an electrical signal through a nerve from your ear to your brain. Your brain interprets these signals as sound.
If the hairs inside your inner ear are bent or broken, they can “leak” random electrical impulses to your brain, causing tinnitus. Other causes of tinnitus include other ear problems, chronic health conditions, and injuries or conditions that affect the nerves in your ear or the hearing center in your brain.
Common causes of Tinnitus
In many people, tinnitus is cause by one of these conditions:
- Age-related hearing loss. For many people, hearing worsens with age, usually starting around age 60. Hearing loss can cause tinnitus. The medical term for this type of hearing loss is presbycusis.
- Exposure to loud noise. Loud noises, such as those from heavy equipment, chain saws and firearms, are common sources of noise-related hearing loss. Portable music devices, such as iPods or MP3 players, also cause noise-related hearing loss if played loudly for long periods of time. Tinnitus caused by short-term exposure, such as attending a loud concert, usually goes away: long term exposure to loud sounds can cause permanent damage.
- Earwax blockage. Earwax protects your ear canal by trapping dirt and slowing the growth of bacteria. When too much earwax accumulates, it becomes too hard to wash away naturally, causing hearing loss or irritation of the eardrum, which can lead to tinnitus.
- Ear bone changes. Stiffening of the bones in your middle ear may affect your hearing and cause tinnitus. This condition, otosclerosis, caused by abnormal bone growth, tends to run in families.
Anyone can experience tinnitus, but these factors may increase your risk:
- Loud noise exposure. Prolonged exposure to loud noise can damage the tiny sensory hair cells in your ear that transmit sound to your brain. People who work in noisy environments – such as factory and construction workers, musicians, and soldiers – are particularly at risk.
- Age. As you age, the number of functioning nerve fibers in your ears decline, possibly causing hearing problems as often associated with tinnitus.
- Gender. Men are more likely to experience tinnitus.
- Smoking. Smokers have a higher risk of developing tinnitus.
- Cardiovascular problems. Conditions that affect your blood flow, such as high blood pressure or narrowed arteries, can increase your risk of tinnitus.
In many cases, tinnitus is the result of something that can’t be prevented. However, some precautions listed below can help prevent certain kinds of tinnitus.
- Use hearing protection. Over time, exposure to loud noise can damage the nerves in the ears, causing hearing loss and tinnitus. If you use chain saws, are a musician, work in an industry that uses loud machinery or use firearms (especially pistols or shotguns), always wear over-the-ear hearing protection.
- Turn down the volume. Long-term exposure to amplified music with no ear protection or listening to music at very high volume through headphones can cause hearing loss and tinnitus.
- Take care of your cardiovascular health. Regular exercise, eating right and taking other steps to keep your blood vessels healthy can help prevent tinnitus linked to blood vessel disorders.
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