The Trials of Tinnitus

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The sound of ringing, buzzing, or clicking in your ears is hard to ignore. 

It may come and go, or sound continuously.  It may be in one ear or both.  Sometimes, it may be so loud it keeps you from concentrating or hearing noises around you.

As many as 50 million Americans suffer from tinnitus, a condition that makes them hear recurring noises that others can’t detect.

With almost 15% of the public experiencing some form of phantom noises, tinnitus may be one of the most common ailments in this country.

Despite progress in managing symptoms, however,  tinnitus represents a conundrum for health officials.  The condition has many causes, few cures, and can be tricky to diagnose.

For doctors, tinnitus can be especially difficult to treat because it can’t really be detected other than from what patients report about how it sounds, says Dr. Keith Lamy, at Austin family practice medicine clinic.

For some, the impact can be mild or annoying,  without much disruption to daily life. 

Others, however, experience severe and disruptive symptoms.  In the worst cases, the condition can be so debilitating it keeps people from working, communicating, or sleeping properly. 

Usually, people experience one of two types of tinnitus, according to the American Tinnitus Association.

Tonal tinnitus is near-continuous or overlapping sound with well-defined frequencies and volumes that often fluctuate.  Pulsatile tinnitus, meanwhile, is the perception of pulsing noises that may be in beat with your heartbeat.

In rare cases, people experience a third condition that causes them to hear music or singing.

The tinnitus association’s website provides samples of different sounds to help people distinguish what type of tinnitus they have:

Identifying the sounds you hear is useful information for your doctor to assess your condition.

Tinnitus has many causes, complicating diagnosis and treatment. 

They include inner ear hair cell damage, injuries that impact nerves in the ear, abnormal bone growth, and other ear damage. 

Build-up of earwax can cause tinnitus, as can hearing loss from normal aging.

People who are exposed to music devices, heavy equipment, firearms, aircraft, and other loud noises for long and short periods may develop tinnitus.  Loud, hazardous noise is prevalent for many in the workplace, often resulting in damaged hearing.

Other less common causes include Meniere’s disease, head, neck or jaw injuries and disorders, and muscle spasms in the inner ear. 

In many cases, the cause is never determined.

Although treatments exist, they do not work for everyone, and may be only somewhat helpful.

Perhaps the easiest conditions to resolve are those caused by a cyst or earwax, which can be treated or removed. 

Certain medications, including some antibiotics, cancer drugs, and water pills, may cause tinnitus, especially at high doses.  Eliminating the drugs can resolve the problem in some cases.

For others, help may come in the form of sound therapies to try to mask the noises and make them less annoying.  Sending more sound signals through your ears can distract you from the noises.

Such therapies can offer relief by managing your symptoms.   But they don’t help everyone.

If you suffer from recurring noises, seek help from a physician.  See a doctor as soon as possible if you develop tinnitus after an upper respiratory infection, if your symptoms occur suddenly, or if you have dizziness or hearing loss with tinnitus.

Dr. Lamy can perform a physical examination of your ears, neck, and head, and order a hearing test and imaging scans to help determine what is causing your condition.

Even if a cause can’t be found, he can recommend steps to help you cope with the condition and reduce the severity of your symptoms.

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