Some health conditions only strike certain groups. Arthritis is most common in the elderly. Chicken pox generally hits small children. Sickle cell anemia occurs most often in African and Mediterranean populations. Shin splints affect athletes.
The opposite is true for tinnitus.
The symptoms of tinnitus can strike anyone at any time, regardless of age, race, gender or occupation. It’s a condition that doesn’t discriminate.
That said, there are certain groups of individuals who will count more tinnitus sufferers among their numbers. These people in particular need to take special precautions to prevent hearing damage and to manage tinnitus symptoms if they occur.
What is Tinnitus, and Why is it so Common?
Before we examine the groups most susceptible to tinnitus, let’s review what tinnitus is. Tinnitus is noise in your head 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. Some only hear it occasionally, while for some people, the noise never stops.
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.
Tinnitus is so prevalent for two reasons. First, it has multiple causes. While tinnitus is definitely bothersome enough on its own, it’s actually a symptom 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. The second reason why tinnitus is so common? There is no cure, and it tends to be chronic. While some patients will see their tinnitus go away on its own, others will need to find long-term options for managing their symptoms.
Who is Most Likely to Get Tinnitus?
There are several groups whose members are much more likely to develop tinnitus. These include:
- Musicians: professional musicians spend their lives around loud, amplified music, putting them in particular danger of developing tinnitus. How does exposure to loud music lead to tinnitus? Deep in the inner ear are microscopic hairs called cilia. These highly sensitive hairs sway and move in response to sound waves, sending the sensation of sound to our brains. Over-exposure to loud noises like rock concerts can permanently damage the cilia, bending and breaking them and scrambling the signals they send to our brain. That auditory signal misfiring can result in the intermittent or constant sounds of tinnitus. Behaviors that put musicians at particular risk include playing in small venues where the noise levels can be very high, sound checking equipment which can often result in deafening feedback levels, and standing too close to amplifiers at performances. In these situations in particular, protective ear plugs are crucial to preventing hearing loss and tinnitus. For musicians who do develop symptoms, there are several things to consider as you begin managing your tinnitus. First, seek out an audiologist and other providers who understand how important music is to your life. You want them to conserve your hearing, but also your ability to perform. Second, monitor yourself closely for depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. Because hearing is so important to a musician and because music is so key to a musician’s sense of self, it’s common for musicians who develop hearing problems to isolate themselves and fall into depressive episodes. If this happens, reach out to your family doctor right away.
- Older people: tinnitus often accompanies age-related hearing loss. Other reasons that older people develop tinnitus include high blood pressure (which can affect the delicate cilia inside the ears), cumulative damage from loud noises, or reactions to medications. For all tinnitus sufferers but particularly for those with accompanying hearing loss, a hearing aid may be a very effective treatment. Hearing aids boost the volume of outside noise and increase the amount of sound received and processed by your brain. This is helpful for several reasons:
- Masking: hearing aids can raise the volume of external sound to the point that it covers, or masks, the noise of tinnitus. This makes it more difficult to hear the tinnitus and helps your brain focus on the noises around you. Also, today’s digital hearing aids don’t just amplify sound—they can also produce it. That means they can create white noise or other artificial sounds that mask the sound of tinnitus.
- Auditory stimulation: when patients experience hearing loss, fewer sound signals reach the brain. Researchers believe that sometimes this can cause the brain to overcorrect, producing sounds signals that aren’t really there that leads to tinnitus. Increasing the volume of sounds around you also increases the amount of sound signals reaching the brain. This could possibly help to counteract the overcorrecting that causes hearing loss-induced tinnitus.
- Improved communication: loud tinnitus can make it impossible for patients to do everyday activities they once enjoyed leading to frustration, isolation and depression. Because hearing aids boost the volume of these activities above the sound of tinnitus, patients may regain their confidence and their desire to be social and participate in life.
- Veterans: past exposure to gunfire, explosions and loud machinery during service puts retired military personnel at very high risk. The incessant and debilitating effects of tinnitus have crippled many battle-hardened military veterans. In fact, tinnitus is the number one disability among veterans, with over 150,000 veterans diagnosed in 2015 and nearly 1.5 million currently receiving disability benefits for the condition. If you are a veteran and think you may have the symptoms of tinnitus, the first thing to do is to apply for disability benefits from the VA. You can do this online at the VA’s eBenefits website. Once you apply, the VA will schedule an exam for you with an auditory specialist. The doctor will determine if you have tinnitus or related conditions and make treatment recommendations. They will also recommend payment of disability benefits if you are entitled. Going forward, the VA will have your hearing data on file, so any future changes can be tracked and treated if necessary.