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What is Tinnitus? – Understanding Tinnitus Part I
Approximately 50 million Americans are hearing things that no one else can hear. It could sound like a ringing, a hissing, a high-pitched squeak, a low rumbling, a buzzing, or a rush of wind. Oliver Sacks, author and neurologist, has called the sound “unremitting mental junk,” and in his book Hallucinations, one of his interviewees says that the sound in her ears reminded her of “how cicadas would sound when they come in droves back on Long Island in the summer.”
However the sound differs from individual to individual, there is one name for it: tinnitus.
What is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is the phenomenon of hearing phantom sounds from inside your ear. Potential causes include exposure to loud noises, hearing loss due to aging, and various medical issues such as head and neck injuries, high blood pressure, and temperomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders. While there is no one single explanation for tinnitus and no permanent cure, researchers have uncovered new clues and ways to alleviate this condition.
What causes tinnitus?
Some researchers have suggested that tinnitus is not caused by a problem in the ear, but rather, a problem in the brain, according to a piece by NPR’s Morning Edition. In a series of studies scanning the brains of individuals suffering tinnitus, researchers have found that tinnitus “may be caused by a brain that is not connecting to various sections clearly.” One specialist, Jay Piccirillo, professor of otolaryngology at Washington University in St. Louis, has attempted a treatment called transcranial magnetic stimulation.
He says, “We think that perhaps the electrical stimulation just clears away that pathological, or that faulty, connection, with the hope that the reconnections are more normal and more healthy.”
Other studies have suggested that tinnitus is caused by the irreversible damage done to the tiny hairs in the cochlea by exposure to certain sound vibrations. These tiny hairs are bent into a particular position with exposure to loud noises, and when they are unable to return to their normal positions, the brain registers the electrical impulses as sound.
Many musicians and music-industry professionals experience tinnitus due to years of prolonged exposure to loud noise, including Pete Townshend, lead singer of The Who. The renowned English music critic, Nick Coleman, began to suffer tinnitus in his left ear while completely losing hearing in his right one. In a 2012 profile in The Independent, Coleman recounts the horrors that followed, from being “in hospital, comatose, stricken, unable to keep his balance, nauseous from steroids,” only to be sent home with no palpable solutions.
The Good News
The good news is, tinnitus is beginning to receive much more attention and more dedicated research. Following the Boston Marathon bombings, a group of bombing victims created One Fund to support victims and to focus on tinnitus research. The US Department of Defense has also poured millions of dollars into tinnitus research, due to a high number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffering from tinnitus after exposure to the shocking, loud sounds of war. In most of these cases, veterans also suffered varying levels of hearing loss.
According to the American Tinnitus Association, tinnitus “is not a disease in and of itself, but rather a symptom of some other underlying health condition. In most cases, tinnitus is a sensorineural reaction in the brain to damage in the ear and auditory system. While tinnitus is most often triggered by hearing loss, there are roughly 200 different health disorders that can generate tinnitus as a symptom.”
While researchers agree that there are preventative measures we can all take for good hearing health, tinnitus is an affliction that often times appears suddenly and unexpectedly and should be addressed immediately. In some cases, tinnitus can be so severe that it is debilitating and has been linked to depression.
If you believe you are experiencing tinnitus, the first step is to seek help and visit a hearing specialist to test your hearing and learn about hearing aids for those with tinnitus. Though it might be an isolating and difficult experience to hear an unrelenting sound that no one else around you can hear, keep in mind that tinnitus affects a great number of Americans and that are ways to live with productively and healthily with it. For more information on Tinnitus, see our Tinnitus: Truth & Fiction guide.