Statistics tell us that tinnitus affects about 50 million Americans, yet many don’t even know that they have it, let alone understand what causes their tinnitus. It normally arrives to haunt its victims after they’re 50 years old, but this doesn’t mean that children and adolescents are immune from it. So what is tinnitus? It’s the perception a person has, of some type of noise or ringing in the ears. It’s so common in fact, that tinnitus affects about 15 to 20 percent of the population. Tinnitus isn’t a disease in itself — it’s actually a symptom of an underlying condition, such as age-related hearing loss, ear injury or a circulatory system disorder.
Most people with chronic tinnitus adjust to the ringing, squealing or buzzing sounds over time, but 1 in 5 will find it disturbing or debilitating. For some, it can lead to insomnia, difficulty with concentration, poor work or school performance, irritability, anxiety, and depression.
What Happens Inside Your Ear that Causes Tinnitus?
Most of the reasons why people get tinnitus is because the neurological activity within the auditory cortex, the part of the brain responsible for hearing, is altered. The transmission of sound to this area of the brain is interrupted and as a result, some of the neural circuits don’t receive signals. So what happens? Well instead of this dysfunctional communication producing hearing loss due to the lack of stimulation, instead, the neural circuits begin chattering to compensate.. To begin with, they chatter on their own. Then, they become hyperactive and synchronous. When we experience this deviation, our brains try to deal with the change by interpreting the neurological activity as sound. This can resemble ringing, buzzing, hissing, whistling, squealing or roaring, to name a few of the potential noises.
The Most Common Tinnitus Causes
For what we’ve described above to occur, it usually requires exposure to an external stimulus. These include excessive or chronic noise exposure, head and neck injuries, and ear infections. On occasion, tinnitus can also be symptomatic of a serious underlying medical condition but most commonly it is not.
Our inner ear contains auditory cells, which in turn have little hair-like structures on them. When these become damaged, the signals don’t get to the brain in the most efficient manner. Alternatively, turbulence in a carotid artery or jugular vein, or jawbone problems can also be tinnitus causes. It can get worse as we grow older, but if we get it treated, the symptoms can subside. The secret is to find the underlying cause and then treat it. Another approach is to use an apparatus that reduces or masks the noise, so that tinnitus becomes less noticeable.
Hearing loss normally associated with the ageing process is a common cause behind tinnitus, but there are also about 200 other health disorders which can trigger tinnitus symptoms. So here is a summary of some of the most commonly reported triggers for tinnitus.
Exposure to Loud Noise: Acute or chronic exposure to loud or excessive noise can damage or destroy hair cells (cilia) in the inner ear. Because these cells cannot be renewed or replaced, this can lead to permanent hearing loss and/or tinnitus. If the cause of the problem is not removed, the situation can deteriorate, so people such as musicians, construction workers, military personnel and air traffic controllers who work in loud environments should always wear ear protection.
Age-Related Hearing Loss: Also known as presbycusis, age-related hearing loss results from the gradual effect of aging on hearing. This permanent, progressive, and sensorineural condition is most pronounced at higher frequencies. Since we all begin to lose about 0.5% of our inner ear’s hair cells annually, from the age of 40 onwards, tinnitus most commonly comes to visit people over the age of 50.
Accumulation of Ear Wax: Earwax, called cerumen, is produced by special wax-forming glands located in the skin of the outer one-third of the ear canal. If it accumulates in your ear canal, it can diminish your ability to hear. It often produces ear ache in children, especially when it hardens. So your auditory system may overcompensate for the loss by fabricating noises that do not exist. Your physician can safely remove the buildup, or you can try natural methods such as using olive oil to break up the wax. In most cases, where ear wax or foreign bodies are the cause, this will immediately alleviate your tinnitus. However, sometimes ear wax buildup can cause permanent damage, resulting in chronic tinnitus.
Ear wax is not the only obstruction in the middle ear that can increase pressure in the inner ear, producing tinnitus. Other examples include dirt, foreign objects, and loose hair from the ear canal.
Inner Ear Disorders: Ménière’s disease typically affects hearing and balance and may cause debilitating vertigo, hearing loss, and tinnitus. People who suffer from Ménière’s disease often report a feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear (it typically affects only one ear). The condition most often impacts people in their 40s and 50s, but it can afflict people of all ages, including children. Although treatments can relieve the symptoms of Ménière’s disease and minimize its long-term influence, it is a chronic condition with no true cure.
Effects of Some Drugs: When a medication is ototoxic, it has a toxic effect on the ear or its nerve supply. In damaging the ear, these drugs can cause side effects like tinnitus, hearing loss, or a balance disorder. Depending on the medication and dosage, the effects of ototoxic medications can be temporary or permanent.
One of the most common drugs known to cause tinnitus, is aspirin, especially when taken in high doses. Some will even say “an aspirin a day and tinnitus will stay”.
Less commonly, tinnitus may develop as a result of a head injury, changes in blood flow (eg anaemia, high blood pressure), reactions to certain medications, acoustic neuroma (a rare non-cancerous growth that affects the hearing nerve), diabetes, and thyroid disorders.
Pulsatile tinnitus, is a type of tinnitus which appears to follow a rhythm such as your heart beat. It may be caused by damage to your blood vessels. A growing body of research is leading experts to believe that your hearing and your heart are closely connected.
Researchers are not entirely certain why, but drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, eating certain foods and consuming caffeinated beverages can play a role in tinnitus. Frequently being fatigued or stressed can also be a factor. In short, if you’re not taking good care of your overall health, you are susceptible to tinnitus.
Discovering which of the tinnitus causes outlined above, applies to you, can provide the best hope for relief.
Eliminate Tinnitus Causes and Get Your Life Back
Ear protection can mitigate the negative effects of loud noises and prevent the exacerbation of tinnitus. This is especially important if you work in a loud environment or regularly visit loud places, like shooting ranges, concerts, and clubs. Wearing custom earplugs or special earmuffs can go a long way toward preventing your tinnitus from worsening.
In addition, a healthy lifestyle can reduce the impact of tinnitus. Avoid physical and emotional stress, as these can cause or intensify tinnitus. You may be able to reduce your stress levels through exercise, meditation, deep breathing, or massage therapy. If you suffer from high blood pressure, consult your doctor for help controlling it, as this can also impact tinnitus.