Editor: Here’s an interesting article on tinnitus by audiologist Linda Gamayel. It is reprinted with permission from the KINGSPORT TIMES-NEWS.
Tinnitus is a term derived from the Latin word “tinnire” meaning “to jingle.” The word is often pronounced two different ways, TINnitus and tinNITEus. According to dictionaries, neither pronunciation is preferred, but the order of listing reflects the frequency of use. Regionally, one pronunciation may vary over the other.
Tinnitus, sometimes called “head noise,” is hearing sounds coming from inside the head. For many people, tinnitus is a high-pitched ringing in one or both ears. For others, it may be a buzzing, whistling, popping, hissing or roaring noise. Tinnitus may be constant or may come and go.
Fifty million Americans experience tinnitus. About 12 million have tinnitus severe enough to seek medical attention. Of those, about 2 million patients are so distraught with tinnitus, they cannot function normally.
Most people experience occasional, mild tinnitus at one time or another. The prevalence of tinnitus rises with age, increasing in one’s mid-40s, peaking in the 55 to 64 age range, then begins to decline. In general, tinnitus is reported less often by women than men.
Scientists don’t really understand the sensation of sounds that are perceived to be in the ear. In reality, the sounds are not within the ear, but from a response in the brain. Parts of the brain that interpret sound seem to respond to some kind of damage, telling the person that they hear noise when no noise is there.
Tinnitus can be caused by various problems, with the most common being exposure to loud noise. Tinnitus also can result from ear or sinus infections, an inner ear disorder called Meniere’s disease, certain medications, head and neck trauma, a multitude of middle and inner ear diseases, circulatory problems or misalignment of the jaw. Stress has been known to be a factor in producing tinnitus, and when treated through relaxation therapy, disappears. In rare instances, a serious condition such as a tumor can cause tinnitus; therefore, your doctor should be consulted.
Patients with tinnitus will often say that their tinnitus is worse at night. However, during the day, the distraction of activities and environmental sounds make your tinnitus less obvious, and these sounds will actually mask the tinnitus that is present. When your surroundings are quiet, the tinnitus may seem louder and more constant.
Fatigue also may make tinnitus worse. So naturally, when you relax in a warm shower or settle into your bed at night, the quiet gives way to your awareness of the tinnitus that has been there all day. Music, tapes of environmental sounds such as waterfalls and even special devices that fit into one’s ears like hearing aids can generate soothing, distracting sounds that bring relief. If the person with tinnitus has some hearing loss, hearing aids will often give them the relief they need during the day.
It is important not to ignore your tinnitus. Since it is a symptom, the first step should be to try to diagnose the underlying cause. You should have a medical examination with special attention given to factors sometimes associated with tinnitus such as blood pressure, kidney function, drug intake, diet and allergies. Your hearing should be evaluated by an audiologist. The audiologist will determine if there is a need to see a specialist, such as an ear, nose and throat physician.
It is interesting to know that there have been famous musicians and artists with tinnitus. Beethoven, who eventually became deaf, first suffered from tinnitus. Smetana incorporated the tinnitus note he heard into one of his string quartets. Michelangelo had it, too, and wrote that he had a spider’s web hidden in one ear, and a cricket singing throughout the night in the other ear. I would suspect that “spider’s web” meant hearing loss.
What can people do if the noises are making their lives miserable?
First, an examination will rule out a pathological reason for the tinnitus. A critical part of tinnitus treatment is to help the sufferer put his complaint in perspective, to realize that while the noise is aggravating, it is not life-threatening.
Anti-anxiety drugs, in combination with counseling, are beneficial since tinnitus appears to be more severe in people who are depressed. Changing one’s lifestyle to lower stress can make a difference, while others have tried biofeedback, meditation, yoga or other forms of exercise. One person has reported that attending Bible study at church helps because it is a calming experience.
Whether you say TINnitus or tinNITEus, check with your physician and visit an audiologist for a full audiological evaluation to determine the cause of the symptoms.