Every so often, we all may experience a ringing in our ears which can be annoying. But when you have tinnitus (pronounced tin-NY-tus or TIN-u-tus), the ringing can go from being a minor annoyance to impacting the quality of your everyday life.
The Mayo Clinic states, “Tinnitus is when you experience ringing or other noises in one or both of your ears. The noise you hear when you have tinnitus isn’t caused by an external sound, and other people usually can’t hear it.” In addition to a ringing sound, a person with tinnitus may hear different sounds such as buzzing, hissing, swooshing, or clicking.
Tinnitus itself is not a disease. As explained on the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders website, (Tinnitus) is a symptom that something is wrong in the auditory system, which includes the ear, the auditory nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain, and the parts of the brain that process sound.”
“Tinnitus can be distracting and impact listening, but tinnitus does not make hearing or the ability to detect sound worse,” explains Dr. Sara K. Downs, a board-certified audiologist in Duluth, Minnesota.
The American Tinnitus Association states that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that nearly 15% of the population (approximately 50 million Americans) have some form of tinnitus. It also estimates that for 2 million people, the symptoms of tinnitus are extreme and debilitating.
The cause can vary widely and include age-related hearing loss or hormonal changes in women. Downs explains, “As we age, we are more likely to have hearing loss, changes in hormones, thyroid issues, and other conditions that increase the likelihood of experiencing tinnitus. In my practice, I have also noticed a pattern of tinnitus emerging for women upon becoming an empty nester. The house is all of a sudden quiet along with a shifting role, and changes in personal relationships, and tinnitus is there.”
Although tinnitus is more prevalent in older adults, it is not a natural part of aging. Downs says, “Tinnitus is often a signal or symptom of something else going on in the body.”
If you are experiencing a ringing sensation or other types of noises in one or both ears, you should make an appointment with your primary care physician. They will determine if the cause of tinnitus is something minor or if it requires further investigation.
Sometimes the cause is something benign as an easy to treat condition, such as a build-up of earwax that needs to be removed in the physician’s office or a change in certain medications the patient is taking. But tinnitus can also be a symptom of more significant health issues such as circulatory system problems, diseases of the heart, or a brain tumor.
This can be both a temporary condition or it may be a chronic issue. While there is currently no cure for tinnitus, there are several options for managing these symptoms.
“The biggest misconception about tinnitus is that it is a hopeless cause,” says Downs. “In clinic, clients tell me numerous times every week that someone (a physician, friend, family member) has told them that nothing can be done for tinnitus and that they should just learn to live with it.”
It is true that many people get used to the symptoms with time. “Tinnitus is severely bothersome only to about 10% of people who experience it,” Downs explains. “That means many people have tinnitus, but it is not intrusive. For those people, their nervous system tunes tinnitus out naturally within about six months through a process called habituation.”
For those for whom habituation does not occur naturally, physicians can offer several types of treatment. “There is not a pill or sound therapy or device that can completely eradicate tinnitus,” cautions Downs. “(But doctors) can help retrain the nervous system to respond differently to the tinnitus, allowing habituation to occur. Once habituation has occurred, it means if the person listens for tinnitus, they will still detect it, but much like refrigerator noise, if one isn’t listening for it, the body will tune it out.”
Treatment options for patients suffering from tinnitus include sound therapy, hearing aids, relaxation breathing, journaling, education, and sleep hygiene techniques. For some noise canceling headphones playing white noise has helped.
Recently, essential oils have become a popular suggestion for people dealing with tinnitus. Many swear that the following oils have helped cure their tinnitus:
When using essential oils for tinnitus do not put oil directly into your ear canal. Instead apply through gentle massage behind the ear, neck, ear lobe, or outer ear canal.
Opinions vary on whether or not essential oils work. Keep in mind that there is little clinical evidence to support that these oils are effective. Downs says, “I think it’s important to say, again, that there is no cure, no pill, no oil, no vitamin, or gadget that is proven to cure tinnitus. If eliminating tinnitus is the goal of using the essential oil, then the results will be disappointing. However, using essential oils for aromatherapy for stress management in conjunction with other tinnitus treatments can be quite helpful.”
In the August 2019 issue of The Hearing Journal, a study showed that CBD was effective in reducing the cycle of anxiety and stress experienced by people with tinnitus. Other than that it doesn’t do much to help.
While it can be frustrating to suffer from chronic tinnitus, Downs wants people to know that there is hope. She says, “Successful tinnitus treatment often involves using several treatment techniques woven together and empowering the client to be in the driver seat throughout the treatment process.”