Contributed by Debbie Clason, staff writer, Healthy Hearing
Whether it sounds like ringing, buzzing, hissing, chirping or whistling, if you’re constantly hearing sounds like these in your ears when no noise is present, it might be more than just a remnant from the loud concert you attended the night before. You may have a condition known as tinnitus. And, even though it’s just a common annoyance for some, those who suffer from extreme cases have trouble concentrating, sleeping, working and even maintaining relationships.
Thankfully, even those with extreme cases can take heart. There is hope. The challenge is to keep searching until you find a hearing health professional who is skilled at working with tinnitus patients.
“Tinnitus isn’t like a broken leg where you can take an X-ray or MRI and see the problem,” Dr. Casie Keaton of Thrive Hearing & Tinnitus Solutions in Collierville, TN, said. “That’s why it’s so challenging. I have to put the puzzle pieces together for each patient, but it can be treated and there can be positive changes. You just have to find the right person.”
Why you need to see a professional
Even though tinnitus is commonly associated with hearing loss, it’s actually a symptom of another underlying condition. While all hearing healthcare professionals can test hearing and diagnose hearing loss, only those with special training in the treatment of tinnitus can alleviate your symptoms.
That’s why, if you have tinnitus, the first thing you need to do is find a hearing healthcare professional who has experience treating tinnitus patients.
“With tinnitus, there is no rule book,” Dr. Keaton said. “It varies so much across the population, it’s hard to have a wide range, one-size-fits-all approach. The only way a hearing health professional can get the knowledge is by experience working directly with tinnitus patients.”
What you can expect at your first visit
One of the first things a hearing health professional will do is ask about your tinnitus history.
“Most patients have had a lot of diagnostic testing by the time they reach my door,” Dr. Keaton said. “I want to know what tests they’ve had and what, if anything, has worked. Then I want to know what’s going on with their tinnitus – how it’s affecting their life – so I can understand what they’re experiencing.”
“I don’t leave any stone unturned,” she said. “It’s important for me to listen to the patient and understand specifically how the tinnitus is impacting them so I can find a solution that works best for them.”
What causes tinnitus?
One common cause of tinnitus is damage to the hair cells of the inner ear due to age or exposure to loud noise. In fact, according to the Department of Defense’s Hearing Center of Excellence, tinnitus is one of the top disabilities associated with our military veterans, affecting more than 350,000 service members.
Because tinnitus is often caused from prolonged exposure to excessive noise, military personnel aren’t the only ones at risk for developing this condition. Those who work in the music industry, such as rock musicians, technicians and aficionados are also at risk. So are those who work with loud equipment, like carpenters, landscapers and road construction crew members.
Other causes of tinnitus include Meniere’s disease, TMJ disorders, head or neck injuries and acoustic neuroma. Medications such as antibiotics, cancer medications, diuretics, certain antidepressants and aspirin can cause or worsen tinnitus.
How is tinnitus treated?
Treatment will depend on what is causing your tinnitus. If your ear canal is filled with earwax, removing the impaction may dramatically decrease your symptoms. If you have underlying vascular conditions, you may require medication or surgery. If current prescription is the culprit, your doctor may be able to reduce your dosage or switch you to a different medication.
Sound therapy is another treatment effective in suppressing tinnitus noise.
“There are a lot of different forms of sound therapy,” Dr. Keaton said. “The goal is to introduce some type of sound source to lessen the effect of the tinnitus. If patients have a hearing loss, we can sometimes lessen the tinnitus by bringing up the sound of the world around them with hearing aids.” This treatment includes giving hearing aid users tips and tools to use when they aren’t wearing their hearing aids, too.
“Sleep is a huge issue for some tinnitus patients and you don’t wear hearing aids to bed,” she said. “By facilitating sleep and making a positive change in that area, they feel better across the board.”
Others who don’t have hearing loss severe enough to warrant wearing hearing aids may benefit from smart phone apps. Relax, a free mobile app developed by Starkey for both Android and iOS devices, provides users with 12 unique relief sounds including chimes, rainforest, ocean waves, marimba, acoustic guitar and babbling brook. Tinnitus Balance, a free app from Phonak, allows users to select sounds from their iOS device’s music library and provides a sleep timer and Bluetooth streaming
Neuromonics, a therapy Dr. Keaton describes as “a prescription of sound shaped on a patient’s hearing test,” can also be an effective treatment. Patients listen to their “prescription” through a small medical device called a Neuromonics Processor, an MP3 player-like device with high quality earphones. The program also includes personalized support, education and monitoring from an audiologist specializing in tinnitus.
At its meanest, tinnitus can cause sleep deprivation and fatigue, stress, concentration and memory problems, depression, anxiety and irritability. That’s a serious threat to your quality of life and a good reason why you shouldn’t give up until you find relief.
Dr. Keaton said family members can help by being supportive and helping search for an experienced hearing healthcare professional with which their loved one feels confident and comfortable.
More: Tinnitus and suicidal thoughts: What to do when life feels overwhelming
“The most important thing I want tinnitus patients to know is that there is hope,” she said. “There are caring, passionate people out there who are knowledgeable about tinnitus. You don’t have to accept it or learn to live with it. Be informed, know what’s out there, and seek help from a professional who knows what they’re doing.”