September 20, 2022

7 Questions about Tinnitus

As we age, parts of our body will change and perhaps stop working as well. Tinnitus, a sound in one or both of your ears that others can’t hear, is often a sign of hearing loss in one or both ears. It affects 15-20% of people, with highest prevalence amongst those ages 40 – 80.

Do you have questions about tinnitus and what you should do about it? Mina Le, M.D., otolaryngologist – head and neck surgeon at Hackensack Meridian Mountainside Medical Group, answers these questions for you.  Dr. Le is board-certified in otolaryngology – head and neck surgery by the American Board of Otolaryngology.

What are the symptoms of tinnitus?

“Tinnitus can show up as ringing, humming, buzzing, whooshing, or roaring. It might be more obvious when you are alone or when you’re about to go to sleep. You may or may not notice difficulty hearing,” said Dr. Le.

Are there different kinds of tinnitus?

“Pulsatile tinnitus refers to hearing the sound of your pulse or heartbeat in your ear. This might be due to abnormal blood vessels near the ear, or high blood pressure,” shared Dr. Le. “Non-pulsatile tinnitus, which is much more common, refers to tinnitus that does not follow the rate and rhythm of your pulse.”

What causes tinnitus?

While an exact cause for tinnitus cannot be identified, many people experience it because of one or more of the following:

  • Hearing loss.Tiny, delicate hair cells are in your inner ear. These hair cells move when your ear receives sound waves. This movement generates electrical signals along the nerve that travels from your ear to your brain, which interprets these signals as sound. As we age or when we are regularly exposed to loud sounds, the hairs can be bent or broken, which causes random electrical impulses to “leak” to the brain, causing tinnitus.
  • Ear infection or ear canal blockage. If your ear canal becomes blocked with earwax, fluid or some other material, the blockage can change the pressure in your ear, causing tinnitus.
  • Head or neck injuries. Head or neck trauma can affect the inner ear and hearing function but usually causes tinnitus in only one ear.
  • Medications. Medications known to cause tinnitus include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and certain antibiotics, cancer medications, water pills (diuretics), antimalarial drugs and antidepressants. The unwanted noise often disappears when you stop using these medications.

Less common causes of tinnitus include other ear problems, chronic health conditions and injuries or conditions that affect the nerves in your ear or the hearing center in your brain.

Who is more at risk for tinnitus?

While anyone can experience tinnitus, these factors may increase your risk:

  • Loud noise exposure. Loud noises from heavy equipment, chain saws and firearms, are common sources of noise-related hearing loss. Even speakers and portable music devices can cause noise-related hearing loss if played loudly for long periods.
  • Age. The number of functioning nerve fibers in your ears decreases as we age, possibly causing hearing problems often associated with tinnitus.
  • Gender. Men are more likely to experience tinnitus.
  • Tobacco and alcohol use. Smokers have a higher risk of developing tinnitus, as do alcohol drinkers.
  • Certain health problems. Obesity, heart problems, high blood pressure, arthritis or a head injury all increase your risk of tinnitus.

Once you have tinnitus, will it ever go away?

“Tinnitus is technically incurable, but in cases that are not severe, you can learn to live with it as your ‘new normal’ so that you don’t notice it anymore,” stated Dr. Le.

How do you treat tinnitus?

If you are experiencing symptoms of tinnitus, scheduling an appointment with an otolaryngologist is the first step to finding a treatment that may reduce the severity of your symptoms. Possible treatments include ear wax removal, therapies, noise suppression devices, hearing aids, medication changes and treating underlying conditions that may be causing the symptoms.

“I advise patients to keep their minds off the tinnitus as much as possible and to block it out with white noise otherwise,” said Dr. Le. “I also send patients for a hearing test so that they know where they stand. Moderation of caffeine intake and stress reduction can help with tinnitus. Patients with severe tinnitus can benefit from a referral for psychological therapy.”

Does the presence of tinnitus forecast future hearing loss?

“Although tinnitus is usually a symptom of past hearing loss, it does not mean that you will continue to lose your hearing in the future. Once you have some inner ear damage, it’s a good idea to protect what remains of your hearing by wearing ear protection in loud environments,” stated Dr. Le.

If you would like to see an otolaryngologist, you can make an appointment on our website or by calling 973-798-4777.