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Tinnitus - Why do your ears "ring"?

What is Tinnitus?

Tinnitus is the perception of sound within your ear in the absence of an external source. It is not a condition by itself. But rather a symptom of an underlying condition such as ear injury and hearing loss. The perceived sound may vary in pitch and loudness from person to person, but it is usually described as “ringing”, “buzzing”, “hissing”, “pulsed”, or “roaring”. It may be present in one or both ears. Although tinnitus is common, very few people complain that it is loud enough to interfere with their lives.

What causes these sounds?

A variety of conditions can lead to tinnitus. One of the main causes of tinnitus is the damage to the hair cells in the inner ear. When these hair cells are either bent or damaged, they send signals to the auditory nerve even in the absence of an external sound. These sounds are heard as tinnitus. This is one of the reasons that tinnitus is a common issue among individuals with hearing impairment.

Other causes of tinnitus include ear infections, constant build-up of earwax, exposure to loud noises, age related hearing loss, tumors, or dysfunction of the eustachian tube.

The type of tinnitus may be indicative of certain underlying conditions. High-pitched tinnitus is common in noise induced and age-related hearing losses, while low-pitched tinnitus may be indicative of Meniere’s Disease in which tinnitus may become louder during or after an episode of vertigo. In the case of tumors, or blockage of the ear canal, the tinnitus is usually pulsed in nature, mimicking the sound of a heartbeat.

How can tinnitus be managed?

1. Prevention: Exposure to sudden loud noises and long-term exposure to music and other loud sounds can eventually lead to Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) which causes a high- pitched tinnitus. In such cases, taking certain precautionary measures can prevent the occurrence of tinnitus. Listening to music at low levels, avoiding loud noises, and using ear protection devices can reduce the risk of noise induced hearing losses and tinnitus.

2. Managing the underlying condition: In conditions where tinnitus is caused due to ear infections or collection of earwax in the ear canal, directly treating the source of the problem decreases tinnitus.

3. Hearing aids: When the tinnitus is caused due to a hearing loss, hearing aids help decrease tinnitus majority of the time. Hearing aids amplify the sound signals which helps manage tinnitus that occurs due to the lack of auditory stimulation.

4. Tinnitus suppression & Tinnitus maskers – If there is no known cause of tinnitus, individuals can be trained to ignore the tinnitus by shifting their focus, or by masking it with another sound that is slightly louder than the tinnitus. A tinnitus masker is a device that is similar to a hearing aid which generates a low-level white noise constantly with the aim of suppressing the existing tinnitus with continuous stimulation.

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