What causes tinnitus and can it be treated?

Female with tinnitus using the Sono device from Cleanhearing can help

People often describe tinnitus as ringing in their ears, a rushing sound or humming noise, a high-pitched tone or an electrical buzzing. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

For many of those who suffer from tinnitus, the constant sound can be debilitating.

David Friedland, Professor of Otolaryngology and Communication Sciences at the Medical College of Wisconsin, US, explains more about the condition and its treatment options.

Q: What is tinnitus and what are the first signs of it?

Tinnitus is when a person perceives a sound internally that is not generated by the external environment. People hear it in one or both ears and some hear it in their head.

They often describe it as ringing in their ears, a rushing sound or humming noise, a high-pitched tone or an electrical buzzing. Sometimes it has multiple tones and is perceived as music. For others, it might be like words, but almost as if someone is speaking indistinguishably.

Q: Is tinnitus serious?

Tinnitus treatment using Sono from Cleanhearing

People who use Sono for about 20 minutes twice a day generally start seeing improvements after two to four months. - Credit: Cleanhearing

It can be. Tinnitus is extraordinarily common but about 10 per cent of those with it will have it to such a degree that it significantly affects their ability to function. It impacts their daily activities, their quality of life and their ability to sleep. In rare cases, it can be a sign of a serious, underlying illness or disease – a brain tumour or an autoimmune disease like multiple sclerosis.

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Q: Are there different types of tinnitus?

Tinnitus is almost always caused by hearing loss. Age-related and noise-induced hearing loss are the most common. Some people get post-traumatic tinnitus after suffering a head injury. In some cases tinnitus may be caused by musculoskeletal or muscle tension issues, usually around the ears, head and neck. This is called somatic tinnitus.

Q: Who is likely to get tinnitus?

As people age, the prevalence of tinnitus dramatically increases. Those who work in noisy environments or who have had noise exposure, such as veterans of military service might also get it. With somatic tinnitus, it can be people with a history of migraines or who have had extensive dental work or jaw issues.

Q: What causes tinnitus?

The prevailing theory is hyperactivity in the brain. The sound itself is probably not produced in the ear. It is the loss of hearing in the ear that triggers changes within the brain, leading to tinnitus.

Q: Can tinnitus go away on its own?

Commonly people will have short bursts of tinnitus – perhaps 10 to 30 seconds – and that type typically goes away. Sometimes after being exposed to a lot of noise, after a rock concert perhaps, people will notice ringing ears for several days afterwards. That is temporary, noise-induced hearing loss. This will likely stop on its own, but repeated exposure to intense sound can cause permanent damage.

Tinnitus treatment from Cleanhearing using the Sono device

Commonly people will have short bursts of tinnitus that typically go away. However, if the tinnitus lasts longer than six months, it will likely be there for a very long time. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

If the tinnitus is persistent, lasting longer than six months, it will likely be there for a very long time. 10 percent of people who have very intrusive tinnitus report that it does not get better. However, for other individuals, including those with very long-standing tinnitus, it can eventually just burn out. 

Q: Should someone with tinnitus see their doctor?

If the tinnitus only occurs in one ear, it’s likely the cause is ear-specific and may benefit from further investigation. Anyone suffering from pulsatile tinnitus (hearing their heartbeat) should be evaluated. It might be a sign of uncontrolled high blood pressure, tumours, or another serious medical issue. In general, anyone with new or altered tinnitus symptoms should see their doctor to establish the causes and get help.

Q: Is there anything that really helps tinnitus?

Yes, Sono is a device that can be used at home to help self-modulate tinnitus. It delivers electromagnetic stimulation to the area around the ear and parts of the brain that contribute to hearing. Electromagnetic stimulation has been shown to improve blood flow and reduce inflammation, which can be contributory conditions of tinnitus. The theory behind Sono is that it will increase the health of those structures around the ear that might contribute to tinnitus, reducing the stimulus that makes the tinnitus loud and intrusive.

In addition, Sono has an auditory component, and patients have the option of listening to music to further help. This intervention for tinnitus is called sound enrichment. Because tinnitus is thought to be due to hearing loss, adding sound can improve it by reducing hyperactivity in certain regions of the brain. 

Sono also allows you to use ‘notched noise’, which is a demonstrated beneficial intervention for tinnitus. If you know your tinnitus is at a particular frequency, music with that frequency removed from the spectrum can be played. There are lots of ways to use Sono and tailor it to your hearing pattern or condition.

Q: How quickly does Sono work?

People who use Sono for about 20 minutes twice a day generally start seeing improvements within two to four months. They may then be able to reduce the amount of treatment time. It is an effective way to reduce the loudness of the tinnitus and keep it at a manageable level. Users have an online diary to track their therapy and their response to it. 

Q: Are there any other treatment options for tinnitus?

Medications are not generally effective and usually target other related conditions such as anxiety. Hearing aids may be beneficial for people with age-related hearing loss. Some patients may be offered therapy or sound maskers to help them cope with the condition. There are also programmes that use sound enrichment alone. What makes Sono unique is the addition of the electromagnetic stimulus.

For more information or to purchase Sono, visit cleanhearing.com.

Email contact@cleanhearing.com to chat with a member of the team.