When your body’s not working like it should, life can feel pretty lonely. You may have to limit the time you spend with friends and family. You may be unable to work or do the activities you used to enjoy. But, more than anything, you feel isolated because you believe no one understands what you are going through. They may offer sympathy, but they can’t understand your discomfort or your distress.
However, if you suffer from ringing in your ears, you are in very good company. Over 50 million Americans struggle with tinnitus, making it one of the most common health conditions in the United States.
What is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is noise in your ear that has no external source. For some patients, it sounds like a high-pitched ring. For others, it’s a hiss, whoosh, buzz or hum. Some people experience it in one ear, others in both. Others still only hear it occasionally, while, for some people, the noise never stops.
In fact, according to a survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, of the 50 million Americans who report symptoms of tinnitus, nearly 20 million deal with burdensome tinnitus on a regular basis, and 2 million of those people struggle with severe, debilitating symptoms.
Why is Tinnitus so Common?
Tinnitus is so prevalent for two reasons. First, it has multiple causes. You see, while tinnitus is definitely bothersome enough on its own, it’s actually a symptom of an underlying issue rather than an isolated medical condition.
Tinnitus is a signal to you and your doctor that something else is going on in your body. That “something” could be any number of common health concerns from inner-ear damage, to stress, to ear wax, to blood vessel disorders, to meniere’s disease.
The second reason tinnitus is so common? Just like there is no single cause, there is no single cure for tinnitus. There is no pill you can take to make tinnitus go away. And while there are many tinnitus management options and lessen the intensity of your symptoms, finding out what works for you can often be a long and frustrating process of elimination.
Those who stick with the search to find the treatment for tinnitus that work for them often end up vastly improving their quality of life. But many tinnitus sufferers don’t seek help or give up trying to find relief, resigning themselves to a life with tinnitus.
Who Gets Tinnitus?
Tinnitus can affect anybody—any age group, any race, any demographic. However, there are some groups who are more likely to develop tinnitus for a variety of reasons. These groups include:
- Men: men get tinnitus more often than women. This may be because a greater percentage of men do jobs in loud environments, like those who work in manufacturing, construction and the military. Men are also more likely to participate in loud activities, such as hunting and motorsports. Of course, women who work in loud jobs or enjoy loud activities are at an equally high risk.
- Older people: tinnitus often accompanies age-related hearing loss.
- Caucasians: white, non-Hispanics report more incidents of tinnitus than other racial and ethnic groups. The reasons why is unclear.
- Military personnel and veterans: exposure to gunfire, explosions and loud machinery puts active military personnel at very high risk for developing noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus. In fact, tinnitus is the leading service-related disability among U.S. veterans, even surpassing reported cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (ptsd).
- Musicians and music lovers: professional musicians spend their lives around loud, amplified music, putting them in particular danger of developing tinnitus. Music enthusiasts also risk developing noise-induced tinnitus from attending loud concerts and listening to music with the volume turned up too high. In fact, with the explosion in popularity of personal listening devices like smart phones and iPods, more people, especially more young people, are at risk of developing tinnitus than ever before.
- People with mental health concerns: patients with a history of depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder can be more prone to suffering from tinnitus. While these mental health issues do not cause tinnitus, they may interfere with a patient’s ability to cope with the noise, making the condition worse.
How Can I Treat My Tinnitus?
There are many treatment options for tinnitus. Fo some people with tinnitus, it may become a long-term or permanent condition, many others will see their symptoms lessen or disappear entirely by experimenting with the treatments and techniques below.
- Start with your family doctor: if you develop tinnitus, it’s important to tell your doctor so they can check you for any underlying causes that may point to effective treatment options. For example:
- Tinnitus that’s continuous, steady and high-pitched (the most common type) often indicates a problem in the auditory system and requires hearing tests conducted by an audiologist.
- Tooth grinding or muscle tension in the neck and jaw can make tinnitus more noticeable. If your doctor finds tight muscles are part of the problem, massage therapy may help relieve it.
- Pulsatile tinnitus (hearing your own pulse in your ears) calls for a medical evaluation, especially if the noise is frequent or constant. Your doctor may recommend an MRI or CT imaging to check for a tumor or blood vessel abnormality.
Your doctor may also want to review any medications you are taking, as some drugs have tinnitus as a side effect.
- Improve your physical health: eating a diet rich in vitamins and minerals, making time for regular exercise and getting at least eight hours of sleep a night can all greatly improve symptoms of tinnitus.
- Concentrate on your mental health: stress can kick-start tinnitus and worsen your condition. Your doctor may prescribe an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication, or recommend cognitive behavioral therapy. You can work on your mental health at home by exercising, getting enough sleep and incorporating yoga or meditation into your daily routine.
- Consider sound therapy: use sound generators to distract you. These could include fans, radios, or white noise machines. You can also purchase a wearable sound generator or a hearing aid that generates sound specifically to counteract tinnitus symptoms.
- Consider alternative therapies: some tinnitus patients find relief from herbal supplements like garlic and gingko biloba, acupuncture and chiropractic care.