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more articles by Cryer, Jonathan E. , MD  |  author's bio

Tinnitus Steals the Sound of Silence

Tinnitus Steals the Sound of Silence

By Jonathan Cryer, M.D.


If you are bothered by a high-pitched sound, buzzing, or shushing in one or both ears, you may have a condition called tinnitus, which effects a majority of the population at some point in their lives.


Can other people hear the annoying sounds I’m hearing?


In most instances, other people cannot hear those annoying sounds. There are two types of tinnitus, subjective and objective. Subjective tinnitus, which is the most common type, describes sounds that only the person with the condition can hear. Objective tinnitus produces sounds that your doctor can detect during an examination and may have any number of causes, from vascular malformations in the head to a bug trapped in the ear.


What causes subjective tinnitus?


The most common cause of tinnitus is hearing loss associated either with advancing age or exposure to loud noise. It’s not uncommon for people who are annoyed by the sound in their ears to be unaware of their hearing loss: they first learn about it during evaluation and testing.


Another common cause of tinnitus is medication. People using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen or aspirin often experience ringing in their ears.


What should I do if I have ringing or other noise in my ears?


If you have either intermittent or constant ringing in one or both ears, it’s a good idea to mention it to your doctor. While these noises are usually benign, your doctor may send you to an ear, nose, and throat specialist (otorhinolaryngologist) for further evaluation.  Tinnitus does not often represent a serious medical problem; however, it can be a tremendous nuisance. Depending on the individual involved, tinnitus can have a significant impact on quality of life.


What happens during the evaluation?


The doctor will take your medical history and give you a physical examination, which may include a neurological evaluation and an audiogram (hearing test). If the history and physical uncover anything other than common tinnitus, the doctor may suggest some blood tests and an MRI to survey the brain and inner ear. In reading the MRI, the doctor will pay particular attention to the eighth cranial nerve, which conveys information on hearing and balance from the inner ear to the brain.


How is tinnitus treated?


There are several treatment options for people with benign tinnitus. While it is usually difficult to make the noise stop entirely, there are strategies that can help diminish the impact tinnitus has on a person’s life. Many people gain relief by simply masking the noise to cover up the tinnitus. Running a radio on low static or turning on a white noise machine at night can help you get to sleep. Some white noise machines resemble hearing aids and fit into the ear.


Some people find that biofeedback and habituation techniques are helpful in managing tinnitus. By working with someone trained in these techniques, patients can learn to compartmentalize the tinnitus and live with it more compatibly. For some people, merely learning that the tinnitus is benign and not something to worry about provides sufficient relief.


How can I avoid tinnitus?


Long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory pain medications is associated with tinnitus. Let your doctor know if you are taking this type of pain medication; he or she may be able to adjust your medicine to reduce or stop the tinnitus.


Tinnitus that accompanies hearing loss is something we can avoid by avoiding acoustic trauma. If in your professional or recreational life you are exposed to a lot of noise, take the precaution of wearing ear plugs or some other type of hearing protection. When you are mowing the lawn, weed-whacking, skeet shooting, hunting, or riding a motorcycle, protect your hearing.


Some people don’t worry about hearing loss because they don’t understand that losing our hearing is not just about having our internal volume turned down. Hearing can become very distorted; sounds and voices can become tinny, unpleasant, and strange. The best prevention is protection.


Dr. Cryer is an otorhinolaryngologist (a doctor who specializes in ear, nose, and throat). He trained at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, where he completed medical school, followed by a surgery internship and residency in otorhinolaryngology and head and neck surgery. He serves on the medical staff of Cayuga Medical Center and is in practice at Cayuga Ear, Nose, Throat—Head and Neck Surgery.







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