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Tinnitus: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention

Tinnitus is a condition in which you hear sounds that are not caused by an external source. These sounds can be ringing, buzzing, hissing, humming, or other types of noises. In addition to varying in pitch, loudness, and duration, tinnitus can affect one or both ears. Tinnitus can cause a great deal of discomfort and interfere with your daily life, especially if it persists or is severe.

Causes of Tinnitus

Tinnitus is usually a symptom of an underlying condition, rather than a disease itself. Some of the common causes of tinnitus include:

  • Hearing loss: As you age, you may lose some hearing ability, which can make you more sensitive to internal sounds. Loud noises can also damage the inner ear's hair cells, which transmit sound signals to your brain. This can cause tinnitus or worsen it already present.

  • Inflammation or infection can occur when there is a buildup of earwax in your ear canal, which can cause tinnitus. Too much earwax can also trap bacteria and foreign objects, which can cause ear inflammation or infection.

  • An infection of your middle or inner ear can cause fluid buildup, inflammation, or pressure in your ear, resulting in tinnitus and hearing loss. Tinnitus and hearing impairment can also be caused by ear infections that damage your eardrum or ear bones.

  • There are some medications that can cause tinnitus, especially if taken in high doses or over long periods of time. Talk to your doctor about changing or stopping your medication if you suspect it is causing or worsening your tinnitus. These include antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs, antidepressants, diuretics, aspirin, and quinine.

  • Disorders of your blood vessels, including high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, aneurysms, or tumors, can cause abnormal blood flow or pressure in your head or neck, which can lead to a pulsing or whooshing sound in your ears. In most cases, pulsatile tinnitus is synchronized with your heartbeat.

  • Some other conditions that can cause or worsen tinnitus include Meniere's disease, otosclerosis, acoustic neuroma, temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), head or neck injuries, thyroid problems, anemia, and diabetes.

Symptoms of Tinnitus

The main symptom of tinnitus is hearing sounds that are not caused by an external source. These sounds can be:

  • Ringing: This is the most common type of tinnitus sound, and it can be high-pitched or low-pitched, continuous or intermittent, and vary in loudness.

  • Buzzing: This is a type of tinnitus sound that resembles the sound of an insect or a machine, and it can be constant or fluctuating, and vary in pitch and volume.

  • Hissing: This is a type of tinnitus sound that resembles the sound of steam or air escaping, and it can be steady or pulsing, and vary in pitch and loudness.

  • Humming: This is a type of tinnitus sound that resembles the sound of an electric motor or a fan, and it can be constant or rhythmic, and vary in pitch and volume.

  • Clicking: This is a type of tinnitus sound that resembles the sound of a clock or a metronome, and it can be regular or irregular, and vary in speed and intensity.

  • Pulsing: This is a type of tinnitus sound that is synchronized with your heartbeat, and it can be caused by blood vessel disorders or muscle contractions in your ear or head. It can be heard as a thumping, whooshing, or swooshing sound, and it can vary in loudness and frequency.

Depending on the underlying cause and other factors, tinnitus can affect either one or both ears, and it may vary in pitch, loudness, and duration. Some people hear their tinnitus more at night or in quiet environments, whereas others hear it more in loud environments. Tinnitus can also change over time.

Especially if it is severe or persistent, tinnitus can negatively impact your quality of life.

  • Hearing problems: Tinnitus can make it difficult to hear external sounds, especially if they are similar to your tinnitus sound or if your tinnitus is very loud. This can make it difficult to communicate, listen to music, or focus on certain tasks.

  • Tinnitus can make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep, especially if it is loud or bothersome, leading to fatigue, irritability, and mood changes.

  • It can cause stress, anxiety, depression, frustration, anger, or isolation. It can also affect your self-esteem, confidence, or social life. It can also increase your sensitivity to other sounds and stimuli, which can increase your discomfort and annoyance.

  • Tinnitus can interfere with your memory, concentration, or focus. It can distract you from your work, studies, or hobbies. It can also affect your decision-making, problem-solving, and creativity.

Diagnosis of Tinnitus

If you have tinnitus that bothers you, you should see your doctor for a diagnosis and treatment. Your doctor will ask you about your medical history, your tinnitus symptoms, and any other health problems you may have. Your doctor will also examine your ears, head, and neck, and perform some tests to check your hearing and identify the possible cause of your tinnitus. The tests may include:

  • In the hearing (audiological) exam, you will wear headphones and listen to different sounds at different frequencies and volumes. This test is used to determine your hearing ability and the type and degree of your hearing loss. The results will be compared with normal values for your age and gender, and you will indicate when you hear the sound.

  • If your tinnitus worsens or changes when you move your eyes, jaw, neck, arms, or legs, it could be a result of a muscle or joint problem, or a blood vessel disorder.

  • These tests use X-rays, MRIs, or CT scans to create images of your head and neck. These can help detect abnormalities or tumors causing your tinnitus.

  • Testing your blood or urine to check for infections, inflammations, or metabolic disorders that may be causing or worsening your tinnitus is called a laboratory test.

Treatment of Tinnitus

Treatment for tinnitus depends on the underlying cause and the severity of your symptoms. Some of the common treatments include:

  • In order to reduce or eliminate your tinnitus, you may need to treat the underlying condition, such as an ear infection, earwax buildup, medication, or blood vessel disorder. To treat your ear problem, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics, ear drops, or surgery, or change or stop your medication. To reduce your tinnitus, your doctor may also recommend lifestyle changes, such as lowering your blood pressure, quitting smoking, or managing your stress.

  • If your tinnitus is caused by hearing loss, using hearing aids may improve your hearing and reduce it. In addition to masking or distracting you from your tinnitus, hearing aids can also improve your communication, social interaction, and quality of life by amplifying external sounds and making them louder than your tinnitus.

  • Using a noise suppression device, you can mask or cover up your tinnitus by playing white noise or another sound. White noise is a type of sound that contains all frequencies and is similar to a fan, a waterfall, or radio static. You can use white noise machines, fans, humidifiers, or air conditioners to create white noise in your environment, or you can use earphones, headphones, or hearing aids to generate white noise in your ears. Using music, nature sounds, or guided meditation can also distract you from your tinnitus or help you relax.

  • A type of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) aims to help you cope with your symptoms of tinnitus by changing your negative thoughts and emotions. In order to replace your irrational beliefs, fears, or worries about your tinnitus with more realistic ones, cognitive behavioral therapy can help you identify and challenge them. Using CBT, you can also learn relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or mindfulness, to reduce stress and anxiety, and improve your mood and sleep.

  • The objective of tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT) is to help you get used to your tinnitus and ignore it by combining noise suppression devices with counseling. Wearing a device that generates a low-level sound matching your tinnitus frequency and intensity is part of TRT, and you receive counseling on how to cope with it. By reducing your awareness and perception of your tinnitus, you can make it less bothersome and intrusive.

  • There are also some other treatments that may help people with tinnitus, but they are not proven to be safe or effective. Before you try any of these treatments, consult your doctor, and be aware of their potential risks and side effects. They include acupuncture, hypnosis, biofeedback, electrical stimulation, or dietary supplements.

Prevention of Tinnitus

Tinnitus is not always preventable, but there are some steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing or worsening it. These include:

  • In order to prevent or worsen tinnitus, you should avoid or limit your exposure to loud sounds, such as concerts, fireworks, machinery, or firearms. If you are exposed to loud sounds, you should also wear earplugs, earmuffs, or noise-canceling headphones, as well as lower the volume of your television, radio, or music player. Hearing should also be checked regularly by a doctor or an audiologist, and any hearing problems should be treated as soon as possible.

  • Clean your ears regularly with a soft cloth, cotton swab, or ear syringe to prevent or treat ear wax buildup, which can cause or worsen tinnitus. If you use sharp objects to clean your ears, like pins, needles, or hair clips, you can damage your ear canal and eardrum. Ear candles should also not be used, as they can cause burns, infections, or perforations. You should see your doctor if you have excessive or impacted earwax.

  • Tinnitus can be caused or worsened by health conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or thyroid issues. It is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle, which includes eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, drinking enough water, and avoiding smoking, alcohol, and caffeine. As prescribed by your doctor, you should also check your blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels regularly. In addition, you should consult your doctor before taking over-the-counter medications, supplements, or herbal remedies, since they may cause tinnitus as a side effect.

  • If you are stressed, anxious, depressed, or angry, your perception and sensitivity to tinnitus can increase. Practicing meditation, yoga, tai chi, or other relaxation techniques can help you relax and cope with your emotions. As well as seeking professional help, if you are experiencing mental health difficulties or have difficulties in your professional or personal lives, you should seek counseling, therapy, or support groups. Additionally, avoid situations or people that trigger or aggravate your negative emotions or stress.

  • It is important not to ignore or suffer in silence if you suffer from tinnitus. You should consult your doctor for a diagnosis and treatment, and follow their recommendations and advice. Getting support from family, friends, and other tinnitus sufferers can also be helpful. In addition, you should learn more about the causes, symptoms, treatments, and coping strategies of tinnitus. In addition, you should join a tinnitus organization, such as the American Tinnitus Association or the British Tinnitus Association, and participate in their events, activities, and research.

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