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TINNITUS – What are those noises you hear?

Editor: If you have a hearing loss, chances are you’re all too familiar with tinnitus. What is commonly called “ringing in the ears” is, in fact, a variety of sounds. Here’s Laine Waggoner, the Director of HEAR (Hearing-loss Education And Resources) with an update on this topic.

March 2003

What it is: A perception of sound (buzzing/ringing) in the absence of external stimuli, often accompanying hearing loss. It is a frustrating condition, partly because each person’s tinnitus is unique and there is no one cause or guaranteed cure.

Origin of the noise: It is difficult to pinpoint the precise origin of the sounds. It appears that ear damage causes the brain to send electrical signals to its auditory cortex. This is interpreted as noise.

What can cause it?

Typically, injury to the inner ear caused by loud noise or music, or a variety of health problems: blood flow or muscle spasms in the middle ear, ear wax buildup, head or neck trauma, ear and sinus infections, otosclerosis, jaw misalignment, heart disease, tumors, under active thyroid, and various medications, especially high doses of aspirin.

Who is affected?

An estimated 20 – 35% of the population (50 million people)- at some time in their lives. These figures will likely increase as exposure to loud noise contributes to inner ear hair cell damage, and as high stress levels, poor nutrition, allergies, diabetes and other diseases increase, said Jack A. Vernon, Ph.D., professor emeritus of otolaryngology at Oregon Hearing Research Center at Oregon Health Sciences University.*

Among the elderly, about 40% or more may experience severe tinnitus that disrupts their lives causing depression, anxiety, sleep disorders and other emotional problems.


There is help for tinnitus. Unfortunately, many people are still being told by health care professionals: “nothing can be done about it.” Avoid caffeine, chocolate, nicotine and alcohol- which can all worsen tinnitus.

Tinnitus can sometimes be masked with special hearing aids, by creating “white noise” so that the brain notices the tinnitus less, or by using a tinnitus retraining device. (Ask your audiologist, ENT or otologist.) Some patients are getting relief from a new wearable ultrasound device (Hi-Sonic-TRD) using acoustic stimuli. It was approved by the FDA in 2002 after being tested at the Oregon Hearing Research Center’s Tinnitus Clinic, reports tinnitus researcher Mary Meikle, Ph.D., professor of otolaryngology at OHSU.*

The role of the emotions:

Recent research indicates that the brain’s hippocampus, which controls emotions and feelings, may also be stimulated by tinnitus. This may explain why some people with severe tinnitus often have emotional problems. Drugs, such as anti-depressants or Xanax for anxiety may be prescribed to treat the emotional side-effects. It is best to see a psychiatrist (M.D.) who can assist with medication and coping strategies.

The future: Many researchers worldwide are working to find relief or cures for tinnitus sufferers. Since many cochlear implant patients report some lessening of their tinnitus, a possible future solution for tinnitus may be electrodes implanted in the brain.

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