Overall, nearly 50 million people in the U.S. experience tinnitus – the ringing, buzzing, or humming in your ear that only you can hear. While many of us experience this sensation after a concert or being exposed to other loud noises, it soon goes away. But for others, tinnitus is a common presence in their everyday lives, with its effects ranging from mildly annoying to a permanent distraction.
If you are one of those individuals who suffers from tinnitus, or know someone who does, you may be wondering what causes this condition and what can be done to treat it. From exposure to loud noises to certain illnesses and even too much earwax, tinnitus can occur for a number of reasons.
Excess noise doesn’t just contribute to hearing loss – it can also cause tinnitus. This may happen if you’re exposed to loud noises, either from a single event or ongoing experience, like working around machinery or listening to music with headphones at loud levels. Such noises can damage the fragile hair cells in the inner ear, and the effects lead to both hearing loss and tinnitus.
Hearing loss can further aggravate the effects of tinnitus. With difficulty hearing everyday sounds, the tinnitus noise can become more prominent and more difficult to ignore.
Some people with tinnitus develop it as a side effect of Meniere’s disease, which impacts hearing and balance. While the exact causes of this condition remain unknown, Meniere’s Disease often results from a buildup of fluid in the inner ear – in most cases, it occurs in just one ear.
People with Meniere’s disease experience a range of symptoms, including dizziness, poor balance, hearing loss, sensitivity to sound, and tinnitus.
Excessive earwax is never good – buildup of wax can lead to earaches, difficulty hearing, and yes, even tinnitus. If the wax is too close to the ear drum, it can prevent the eardrum from working properly, distorting how it vibrates and resulting in tinnitus.
Fortunately, tinnitus that results from earwax buildup will typically go away once the ears are cleaned. Just remember, a cotton swab should never be inserted in the ear. Either use ear drops or visit a professional to have you ears cleaned properly.
Temporomandibular Joint Disorder
The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is located in front of the ears, where your jawbone connects to the skull. Given this proximately, it shares some muscles and nerves with your inner ears. TMJ disorders can result from injury to the jaw, arthritis, or other genetic conditions, and lead to symptoms like pain around the jaw and ears, pain when chewing, difficulty opening and closing the mouth, and tinnitus.
If the tone or volume of your tinnitus changes when you chew, open your mouth, or move your neck, it could be a result of TMJ disorder.
Blood Vessel or Inner Ear Disorders
Did you know some cases of tinnitus can actually be heard by your doctor? Known as objective tinnitus, this type is often caused by blood vessel or middle ear issues. For instance, irregular blood flow or spasms of the muscles in your inner ear can cause a pulsating or clicking noise loud enough to be heard by others. Objective tinnitus can also be caused by tumors in the middle ear that impede on proper blood vessel function.
Illnesses That Cause Tinnitus
Tinnitus can result from several illnesses, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, allergies, and ear infections. High blood pressure or other cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, can lead to irregular or insufficient blood flow to the inner ear, resulting in tinnitus. Seasonal allergies can cause inflammation or the buildup of fluid in the inner ear, which can also introduce the ringing sensation. Similarly, ear infections can lead to tinnitus if they affect fluid levels in the inner ear.
No matter the cause, tinnitus can be an inconvenience and negatively impact the lives of those affected by it. While some instances of tinnitus are short term and go away on their own, there is no known cure for the condition.
Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to treat it. There are several techniques and technologies that can distract you from the noise, minimize its effects, and help you learn how to better manage it. From relaxation strategies to advanced hearing aids that can treat tinnitus at the source, stay tuned for a future post discussing the treatment options that can give you relief from your tinnitus.
Leanne Powers, Au.D.
Dr. Leanne Powers is a Sr. Clinical Education Specialist for Signia. She is responsible for the support and on-going training of the Sivantos Educational Specialists and for creating new and innovative training methods to enhance customer service. She trains customers and staff on products, software, and services. In this role, Leanne has given several lectures at AudiologyNOW! and numerous state conventions on a variety of topics, including compression in modern hearing instruments, frequency compression, and tinnitus therapy, as well as presentations specific to the company’s technology. Leanne practiced in a variety of hearing healthcare settings for 16 years prior to joining the Signia team. Most recently, she operated two hearing aid offices in the Chicago area. Leanne received her undergraduate degree from Northern Illinois University, her graduate degree from RUSH University in Chicago, and her doctorate from A.T. Still University of Health Sciences in Arizona.