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Photo of man tackling tinnitus metaphorically when he's really tackling a quarterback.

Tinnitus is a condition that affects over 45 million people in this country, according to the National Tinnitus Association. If you have it, rest assured you are not alone. There is no cure, and it’s not absolutely clear why some people get tinnitus. For most, the trick to living with it is to come up with ways to manage it. A perfect place to start to tackle tinnitus is the ultimate checklist.

Understanding Tinnitus

About one in five people have tinnitus and can hear noises that no one else can hear. Medically, tinnitus is defined as the perception of a phantom sound caused by an inherent medical issue. In other words, it’s a symptom, not an illness itself.

The most prevalent reason people get tinnitus is hearing loss. Think of it as the brain’s method of filling in some gaps. Most of the time, your brain works to interpret the sound you hear and then determines if you need to know about it. For example, your spouse talking to you is only sound waves until the inner ear converts them into electrical impulses. The brain translates the electrical signals into words that you can comprehend.

You don’t actually “hear” all the sound that is around you. The brain filters out the noise it doesn’t think is important to you. As an example, you don’t always hear the wind blowing. You can feel it, but the brain masks the sound of it passing by your ears because it’s not important that you hear it. If you were able to listen to every sound, it would be both distracting and confusing.

There are less electrical impulses for the brain to interpret when someone suffers from hearing loss. The brain waits for them, but due to injury in the inner ear, they never arrive. When that takes place, the brain might try to produce a sound of its own to fill that space.

For tinnitus suffers, that sound is:

  • Clicking
  • Ringing
  • Buzzing
  • Hissing
  • Roaring

The phantom noise may be high pitched, low pitched, loud or soft.

There are other reasons besides loss of hearing you might have tinnitus. Here are some other possible factors:

  • Tumor in the head or neck
  • Poor blood flow in the neck
  • Medication
  • Atherosclerosis
  • Malformed capillaries
  • High blood pressure
  • Earwax build up
  • TMJ disorder
  • Head injury
  • Acoustic neuroma
  • Ear bone changes
  • Neck injury
  • Meniere’s disease
  • Loud noises around you

Although physically harmless, tinnitus is linked to anxiety and depression and high blood pressure, difficulty sleeping and other complications can occur.

Your Ear’s Best Friend is Prevention

As with most things, prevention is how you avert a problem. Decreasing your risk of hearing loss later in life starts with safeguarding your ears now. Tricks to protect your ear health include:

  • If you have an ear infection, consult a doctor.
  • When you’re at work or at home reduce long term exposure to loud noises.
  • Spending less time using headphones or earbuds.

Get your hearing examined every few years, too. The test allows you to make lifestyle adjustments and get treatment as well as alerting you to an existing hearing loss problem.

If You do Hear The Ringing

Ringing doesn’t tell you how or why you got tinnitus, but it does tell you that you have it. You can understand more with a little trial and error.

See if the sound goes away over time if you avoid wearing headphones or earbuds.

Evaluate your noise exposure. The night before the ringing started were you around loud noise? For example, did you:

  • Go to a concert
  • Listen to the music of TV with headphones or earbuds
  • Attend a party
  • Work or sit near an unusually loud noise

The tinnitus is most likely short-term if you answered yes to any of these situations.

If The Tinnitus Doesn’t go Away

Getting an ear exam would be the next step. Your physician will look for possible causes of the tinnitus such as:

  • Stress levels
  • Inflammation
  • Ear damage
  • Infection
  • Ear wax

Here are some particular medications which might cause this issue too:

  • Cancer Meds
  • Antidepressants
  • Quinine medications
  • Aspirin
  • Antibiotics
  • Water pills

Making a change might get rid of the tinnitus.

If there is no evident cause, then the doctor can order a hearing examination, or you can schedule one yourself. If you do have hearing loss, hearing aids can reduce the ringing and better your situation.

How is Tinnitus Treated?

Since tinnitus is a side effect and not a disease, treating the cause is the first step. The tinnitus should go away once you take the correct medication if you have high blood pressure.

For some, the only solution is to deal with the tinnitus, which means finding ways to suppress it. A useful tool is a white noise machine. They generate the noise the brain is missing and the ringing stops. You can also get the same effect from a fan or dehumidifier.

Tinnitus retraining is another strategy. The frequencies of tinnitus are masked by a device which produces similar tones. It can help you learn not to focus on it.

You will also want to determine ways to stay away from tinnitus triggers. They are not the same for each person, so start keeping a diary. When the tinnitus begins, write down everything right before you heard the ringing.

  • What did you eat or drink?
  • What were you doing?
  • What sound did you hear?

Tracking patterns is possible using this method. Caffeine is a known trigger, so if you drank a double espresso each time, you know to order something else next time.

Your quality of life is affected by tinnitus so your best hope is finding a way to eliminate it or at least minimize its impact. To find out more about your tinnitus, schedule an appointment with a hearing care specialist today.

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