According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery, tinnitus is a sound in your ears that only you can hear. It is often referred to as ringing in the ears, but for some people, it may sound more like roaring or hissing. Most people with tinnitus adapt to the sound and live with it, but for 20 percent of people, tinnitus is bothersome enough to affect their quality of life. How long tinnitus lasts and possible treatments depend on the cause. These causes can be divided into primary and secondary.
Primary Causes of Tinnitus
Primary causes of tinnitus usually affect both ears, are associated with hearing loss, and have no cure. The most common cause of primary tinnitus is long-term noise exposure, such as might happen to a person working in construction or running heavy equipment. Tiny cells in the inner ear – called hair cells – react to sound waves and transmit sound to the brain. These hair cells can be damaged or lost from exposure to loud noise over many years or by exposure to very loud noise over a short time. Short-term exposure may go away, but tinnitus that lasts more than six months is usually permanent.
The natural process of aging can also cause primary tinnitus. Like any other nerves, hair cells can be damaged by the wear and tear of age. People with chronic diseases that decrease circulation like diabetes, heart disease, or hypertension may be at higher risk. One theory is that as hearing is gradually lost, the brain tries to adapt by turning up the volume, which is experienced as tinnitus. In many cases, primary tinnitus is a combination of noise exposure and age.
Secondary Causes of Tinnitus
Secondary tinnitus is more likely to affect just one ear and may come and go. Ear wax blocking an ear canal or fluid in the middle may cause temporary tinnitus or make slight tinnitus louder. That is because anything that blocks outside noise makes tinnitus louder. When the outside world is quiet, tinnitus seems louder. Treating these conditions could reduce or eliminate tinnitus. These are some other secondary causes:
- Pulsatile tinnitus sounds like a whooshing pulse in your ear. It may be caused by a narrowed blood vessel in your neck. This is the only type of tinnitus a doctor may hear, using a stethoscope placed over your neck arteries.
- Many medications can cause tinnitus. These include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin or ibuprofen, some diuretics, some antibiotics, and some drugs used for cancer treatment. In many cases nerve damage from a drug – called ototoxicity – is permanent. In some cases, like aspirin, stopping the drug reverses tinnitus.
- Some less common inner ear diseases can cause tinnitus along with hearing loss and dizziness. These include Meniere’s disease, acoustic neuroma, and tumors near the main hearing nerve (acoustic nerve).
Treatment of Tinnitus
Unfortunately, there is no cure for long-term primary tinnitus, the most common cause. Treatment of secondary tinnitus depends on the cause and may sometimes be cured or reduced. For long-term tinnitus, there are some treatments options that may help a person adapt to the condition:
- Hearing aids that increase outside noise and mask tinnitus may be helpful, especially for the 80 percent of people who have both tinnitus and hearing loss.
- Devices that mask tinnitus with a slightly louder more tolerable sound, like music helps, some people, especially at night. They can be table top or earphone devices.
- Since tinnitus is stressful for some people, and stress tends to make tinnitus seem worse, working with a mental health therapist can be helpful.
Current studies are testing new treatments that may help like deep brain stimulation and neurostimulation.
Read more about the treatment and prevention of tinnitus.
Can You Cure Tinnitus at Home Naturally?
The best way to prevent tinnitus and keep it from getting worse is to avoid loud noise. When you can’t avoid loud noise, wear a hearing protection device. Wear hearing protection when operating loud power tools and don’t listen to music at high volume.
Although you may see products advertised to treat or cure tinnitus, none of these products has been shown to work in controlled trials. If you have tinnitus, start with your primary care doctor. Simple steps like removing wax or treating an ear infection may help. You may need to see an audiologist and an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist if you have tinnitus that is severe, one-sided, sudden, or associated with dizziness.