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Tinnitus

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Updated April 02, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Tinnitus is also known as "ringing in the ears" because of what it sounds like to people who have it. Tinnitus does not cause hearing loss, but people with hearing loss can have tinnitus. Conversely, tinnitus can also be a symptom of hearing loss. Tinnitus can range from mild to extremely painful, making its sufferers desperate for relief.

What is Tinnitus?

Tinnitus is when people think they hear something in their ears but there is actually no sound. People with tinnitus actually do "hear" noises that range from a whistle to a roar. It can happen only occasionally, can occur for a period of days then take a break before recurring again, or it can be constant. The sound can vary in pitch from quiet to unbearably loud, or it can stay the same.

Causes of Tinnitus

The most common cause of tinnitus is exposure to loud noises, such as loud music or bomb blasts. Other causes include:

Something happens in the brain to cause tinnitus, but the cause is not definitely known. One theory is that in response to the loss of sensory hair cells in the ear, the brain may order the remaining hair cells to be more sensitive to sound.

How Many People Have Tinnitus?

The American Tinnitus Association states about 50 million people in the United States have tinnitus. Of those, about 12 million have severe tinnitus that drives them up the wall with frustration.

Effects of Tinnitus

Untreated severe tinnitus can have a significant impact on a person's quality of life. Their family relationships, ability to work effectively, and sleep can all be harmed.

Tinnitus Research

Tinnitus research is growing in importance. According to the American Tinnitus Association, tinnitus is the "number one service-connected disability for returning military personnel from the Global War on Terror." This has meant major expense for the government on tinnitus-related disability payments for veterans. Therefore, the Department of Defense and Congress have taken an interest in furthering tinnitus research, adding it to a list of researchable conditions that impact the military. Both American Tinnitus Association and the Department of Defense fund tinnitus research. New research developments are reported in journals such as Tinnitus Today and the International Tinnitus Journal.

Tinnitus Treatment

Tinnitus can be managed through a variety of techniques. One of the most common techniques is tinnitus masking. Tinnitus masking is a form of sound therapy, which uses sound to mask or "cancel out" the tinnitus. Therapy can involve the use of ear-level sound generators or hearing aids. Additional treatment methods include biofeedback and stress reduction. For those with both hearing loss and severe tinnitus, cochlear implants can help.

For treatment, people can also go to tinnitus treatment clinics around the country. Some of these clinics include:

  • Oregon Health & Science University Tinnitus Clinic in Portland
  • University of Maryland Medical Center for Auditory Solutions, Tinnitus and Hyperacusis Program
  • Atlanta Ear Clinic's Georgia Tinnitus Clinic

Tinnitus Support

People coping with severe tinnitus can turn to support organizations such as the American Tinnitus Association, which has a listing of local support groups. Another source of support is the International Tinnitus and Hyperacusis Society forum.

In addition, tinnitus is frequently discussed on the About.com Deafness forum, such as in this thread.

Sources:

Tinnitus. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/hearing/tinnitus.htm. Accessed October 2010.

What is Tinnitus? Tinnitus Today, September 2004.

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