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What's That I Hear? Getting To The Bottom Of Tinnitus

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Nearly everyone has experienced ringing in the ears at some time in their lifetime. In fact, it is so common that it has given rise to the old wives' tale that ringing in the ears means someone is talking about you. It's not true, of course, but it does speak to how commonplace the condition is. Under normal circumstances, brief ringing in the ears is nothing to be alarmed about, but according to the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association, 360,000 Canadians suffer from some form of tinnitus that interferes with their lifestyle.

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus refers to sounds in the ear that do not come from outside the body. It is often referred to as ringing in the ears, but this really isn't accurate. Ringing is only one of forms that tinnitus can take.  Many report buzzing, hissing, roaring, screeching or any variety of noises, explains the American Tinnitus Association (ATA). Although tinnitus is not a true medical condition or disease, because it is often a symptom of another underlying condition – like hearing loss, it can be either chronic or acute.

What does it sound like?

No two people with tinnitus experience the same symptoms, but the ATA categorizes the way the person experiences the sounds in tinnitus into three broad categories.

  1. Tonal Tinnitus – In this form of tinnitus, the sounds heard are continuous and maintain the same frequency. The perceived volume may vary, but the sounds remain consistent.
  2. Pulsatile Tinnitus – In this form the sounds heard appear to pulsate, usually to the beat of the patient's own heartbeat.
  3. Musical – This form is often referred to as Musical Ear Syndrome. The patient hears music in the ear that cannot be heard my others. Interestingly, those who hear mysterious music tend to hear Christmas Carols or patriotic music, explains Audicus.

What causes tinnitus?

Determining the cause of tinnitus isn't always easy. To understand why, consider the two types of tinnitus. Both involve hearing sounds in the ear that do not come from outside the body, but they have an interesting distinction.

  1. Subjective Tinnitus – This form of tinnitus occurs when you hear noises in your ear that no one else hears, not even your doctor with a stethoscope. It appears that the sound doesn't really exist other than in your perception. This form of tinnitus is often caused by exposure to loud noises or from working in a noisy environment. The resulting hearing loss appears to be the culprit in subjective tinnitus. It can also be caused by neurological damage, reactions to certain medications or be a symptom of other medical conditions.
  2. Objective Tinnitus – This form of tinnitus occurs when you hear the sounds of your own body, such as the movement of muscles and joints or the flow of blood through your veins. You doctor can hear the sounds with a stethoscope. This accounts for less than 1% of the cases of tinnitus, explains ATA.

Can you cure tinnitus?

Tinnitus caused by a reaction to medications typically goes away when the medication is stopped. Identifying and treating other medical conditions can also put an end to tinnitus. In the case of objective tinnitus, treating underlying vascular diseases may bring about a cure. However, tinnitus caused by hearing loss or other neurological damage cannot be cured, but there are some treatments.

According to the Mayo Clinic, tricyclic antidepressants and alprazolam may be effective in reducing the symptoms of tinnitus. Other treatment options include wearing hearing aids, using white noise machines or wearing masking devices that emit low-level white noise directly in the ear. Treatment success depends on the individual and the severity of the symptoms.

If you are suffering from tinnitus, talk to your doctor about setting up and appointment with an audiologist to determine the cause of your problems. You can also learn more here about hearing loss conditions.