What is tinnitus?
Tinnitus is a condition where the patient experiences a ringing, buzzing or whistling sound in the ear or even within the head. This occurs in the absence of an external sound, and for some this can be more noticeable in a quiet environment. Tinnitus is a word derived from Latin meaning ‘ringing’.
What causes tinnitus?
Tinnitus can be due to many underlying ear conditions. This may range from simple conditions such as ear wax accumulation, external ear infections, ear injury from loud noise exposure, or age-related hearing loss. Occasionally it may be due to more serious conditions such as middle ear infections, perforations in the eardrum, or even ear or brain tumours. Rarer conditions such as multiple sclerosis, uncontrolled hypertension, or drug therapy can also result in tinnitus. There are times when tinnitus may occur without any underlying causes found and this is usually labeled as ‘idiopathic tinnitus’.
Constant ringing in ears can result in undue stress and anxiety for patients. While some may worry about the possibility of having an underlying brain tumour or ear disease, the constant ringing can result in poor sleep, excessive worry, and even clinical depression. Some people also worry that the tinnitus would eventually cause them to lose their hearing altogether.
How is tinnitus evaluated?
The cause of tinnitus is usually identified from a good medical history, physical examination, and microscopic evaluation of the ears. Hearing tests are often used to supplement the assessment of tinnitus. An MRI scan of the brain and hearing nerves may occasionally be required if an ear or brain tumour is suspected.
How is tinnitus treated?
When tinnitus is found to be due to an underlying condition, it will generally be eliminated once the condition is corrected. If the tinnitus is due to hearing loss, a hearing aid may be useful to improve the hearing and make the tinnitus less apparent for patients. Tinnitus maskers are devices which emit a controllable and more tonal sound to reduce the sensation of the patient’s own tinnitus. Medications and other therapeutic interventions such as psychotherapy and neuronomics can also be very useful in the treatment of disturbing tinnitus.