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Tinnitus: Stopping the Sound in Your Head

In a silence where some people could hear a pin drop, people who suffer from tinnitus will hear a constant ringing in their ears--or, the sound may be a popping, rushing, pinging, chirping, whistling or roaring.

Some people describe it as a freight train constantly rolling through their brains. Yet, for all the distress this common condition can cause, tinnitus has nothing to do with actual sound waves hitting the ear.

What causes tinnitus

About 50 million Americans have tinnitus. For nearly 25 percent of them, the phantom noise is distracting enough that they seek medical advice. About two million experience tinnitus as a life-altering, disabling condition.

People who have hearing loss also can have tinnitus. Prolonged exposure to loud noise can cause tinnitus, as well as hearing loss. Many medications can cause tinnitus; if you suspect that your medicine is causing your tinnitus, talk to your doctor. Allergies, tumors, heart problems, and illnesses of the jaw and neck also can cause tinnitus.

Ninety percent of people with tinnitus have  hearing loss. The condition also can be caused by simple wax buildup in the ear canal, ear or sinus infections, TMJ [temporomandibular joint] dysfunction, or a side effect of certain medications.

How to treat it

When tinnitus is a temporary symptom of a physical problem, treating the physical problem may end they tinnitus. For example, having a doctor remove earwax may put an end to the stream of sound (the tinnitus).

There's no known cure for the vast majority of other cases, however, the following options can provide relief.

Have a checkup by an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor), or care from an audiologist. If your productivity or enjoyment of life is altered, a health care professional can assist you in making your condition more manageable. It's recommended that anyone who experiences tinnitus seek medical attention to rule out any physical problems.

If you have hearing loss along with tinnitus, see your health care provider for help with both problems.

Use a masking device. These emit low-level sound that can help reduce or eliminate the perception of tinnitus. Listening to static on the radio at low volume also can help. The maskers or radio static help you to ignore the tinnitus and fall asleep.

Try a table-top generator. Relatively inexpensive, these offer enough pleasant external sound, such as sounds of a babbling brook, ocean waves, or forest life, to help people ignore their tinnitus.

Drug therapy may help. Medicines are available that may ease tinnitus. Still, further research is necessary to confirm the effectiveness of pharmacologic treatments for tinnitus. If your doctor prescribes a medication for tinnitus, ask if there are any side effects.

Look into tinnitus retraining therapy. This approach also relies on sound generation (maskers), but at a lower intensity than the tinnitus, to aid in the brain's habituation of the sound. Cognitive behavioral therapy is included to help treat the person's emotional reaction to tinnitus.

Use biofeedback. This relaxation technique often helps to ease tinnitus symptoms, simply by helping to reduce stress.

Other treatments that help some tinnitus sufferers include cochlear implants, which are only available to people totally deaf or with profound hearing loss in both ears, and medications that reduce anxiety or depression or that help the person to sleep. Ask your health care professional which treatment may work best for you.

What can I do for myself?

Here are tips on coping with tinnitus from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

  • Think about things that will help you cope. Many people find listening to music very helpful. Focusing on music might help you forget about your tinnitus for a while. It can also help mask the sound. Other people like to listen to recorded nature sounds, like ocean waves, the wind, or crickets.

  • Avoid anything that can make your tinnitus worse. This includes smoking, alcohol, and loud noise. If you are a construction worker, airport worker, or hunter, or if you are regularly exposed to loud noise at home or work, wear earplugs or special earmuffs to protect your hearing and keep your tinnitus from getting worse.

  • If it is hard for you to hear over your tinnitus, ask your friends and family to face you when they talk so you can see their faces. Seeing their expressions may help you understand them better. Ask people to speak louder, but not shout. Also, tell them they do not have to speak slowly, just more clearly.

If you hear your heartbeat in your ear or a swishing sound, this may mean that a more serious condition is present. You should see an ear, nose, and throat specialist for further evaluation.

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