Tinnitus: Common, Constant, Incurable — but Very Manageable

Tinnitus is a fairly common medical condition that people experience in the form of ringing, whistling, hissing, or buzzing that is only perceived by them.

Tinnitus affects as many as 50 to 60 million people, and although there is no cure, a number of people experience tinnitus debilitating enough to have a significant impact on the quality of their lives and well-being. The cause of tinnitus is sometimes unclear, but in 90% of all cases, it is accompanied by a hearing loss.

  • Damage to the inner ear seems to be a common thread in tinnitus patients, as the ear is attempting to hear using damaged sensory hair cells. Damaged hair cells aren’t stimulated by sounds as easily as healthy hair cells, resulting in a hearing loss. The brain sometimes interprets hearing loss by “filling in the blanks” with a sound that is unique to each tinnitus patients: a ringing, hissing, or whistling that may be short-lived or lasting.

  • If there is no damage to the auditory system — either in the inner ear or in the brain — jaw joint dysfunction (TMJ), chronic neck muscle strain, or other forms of head and neck damage may be the cause. Some medications can cause a tinnitus that is usually temporary, as can earwax buildup. Tinnitus patients often find that undesired sounds can amplify their tinnitus.

  • There are several different types of tinnitus, with the most common being subjective tinnitus. This is a sound that is only heard by the affected individual and is usually caused by excessive exposure to loud noise. It can appear and disappear suddenly, and it may last three to 12 months at a time. In some severe cases, it may never stop.

  • Pulsatile tinnitus — a rhythmic tinnitus that aligns with the beat of the heart — has recently been determined to be a possible indicator or blood flow or blood vessel problems and might be a warning of cardiovascular disease.

  • Tinnitus can be managed through strategies that make it less bothersome. No single approach works for everyone, and there is no FDA-approved drug treatment, supplement, or herb proven to be any more effective than a placebo. Behavioral strategies and sound-generating devices offer the best treatment results.

  • Tinnitus retraining therapy helps to habituate the auditory system to the tinnitus sounds a patient hears, making the sounds less noticeable and less bothersome.