As an audiologist providing comprehensive hearing evaluations for over five years in a variety of settings across New York City, a topic I commonly encounter when asking my patients about the reason for their initial visit is tinnitus.
More specifically, those who are experiencing these bothersome sounds in their ears want to know, “Is this going to last forever?” The answer is not simple. As with any medical condition, it depends on the cause.
For treatable causes like a middle-ear infection or wax impaction, it is likely treating the condition that caused the tinnitus will also resolve it. However, for about 90% of people with tinnitus-related inner-ear damage, experts do not know how long the symptom will last.
What is tinnitus?
Tinnitus is defined as ringing or other sounds in the ears not caused by an external sound; meaning, in most cases, other people cannot hear it. Tinnitus can be separated into two categories: subjective and objective.
Subjective tinnitus can only be perceived by the individual and is thought to be caused by an internal mechanism somewhere between the cochlea and brain. In my time as an audiologist, I’ve heard patients describe their subjective tinnitus as anything from simple sounds like ringing, buzzing, clicking or hissing to more complex sounds like music, water or leaves rustling. Everyone has a different experience of how they perceive the presence of their tinnitus.
In very rare cases, individuals may have objective tinnitus, which may be related to cardiovascular issues and needs prompt assessment by a cardiologist or other medical doctor. Objective tinnitus tends to sound like a whooshing or can be synchronized with your heartbeat. In some cases, the sound may be audible in the patient’s ear canal.
Tinnitus can be constant or only present at certain times. It can vary in pitch and intensity or remain the same. Many people report a change in the perception of their tinnitus depending on their environment or stress levels.
Tinnitus Relief Options
One common factor is that the more sound present in the surrounding environment, the less the tinnitus is typically perceived. This concept supports the use of tinnitus maskers, or sounds delivered to the ears through devices such as hearing aids to “mask,” or redirect, the brain’s attention. Maskers are the most common recommendation for those with longstanding or severely bothersome cases of tinnitus.
For those with more severe cases of untreated tinnitus, they may feel psychological effects, such as difficulty concentrating or sleeping, added stress and fatigue, anxiety, irritability, or depression, just to name a few. These cases require some form of intervention.
Common recommendations are hearing aids if hearing loss is present; tinnitus maskers or noise machines; and cognitive behavioral therapy by a mental health professional in order to retrain the brain to handle those psychological effects. What is known is that, currently, there are no pills, drops or chiropractic adjustments proven to cure tinnitus.
An audiologist can help you explore and find techniques to cope with tinnitus and reduce the severity by exercising and stimulating the auditory system.
If you have tinnitus, the first step in addressing the problem is to have a comprehensive evaluation by a licensed audiologist. This evaluation will help to measure and document severity, rule out more serious conditions, refer the individual to the right specialists, and present all possible treatment options.