What is Tinnitus?

Tinnitus is an abnormal sensation of sound when there is no actual physical sound present.  The condition is often associated with hearing loss of various causes.  The most common causes of hearing loss and tinnitus in adults are noise exposure and age-related loss (presbycusis).  In some cases, tinnitus can occur without significant hearing loss, due to head injury or other factors.  Tinnitus can arise from neck and jaw muscle tension and occasionally from side effects of certain medications. The unrelenting noise can cause the individual significant mental anguish. The severity of tinnitus often decreases over time but in some cases may remain permanently bothersome.

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How is tinnitus evaluated?

Patients with tinnitus undergo a full ear, nose and throat evaluation in addition to testing such as an audiogram.  Further studies such as MRI or CT scan may be ordered in certain cases.

What treatment is available?

Since most patients with tinnitus have hearing loss as the cause, the most effective treatment for the tinnitus is to reduce or eliminate the hearing loss.  In some cases, surgery can restore hearing. However, in many cases, the hearing loss is not surgically correctable, so a hearing aid is the most effective treatment. “Masking” is the technique of covering up tinnitus with background “white” noise to make it less apparent. Tinnitus maskers are devices that look like hearing aids and that produce a masking noise in the ear to suppress the tinnitus. Patients can create their own masking noise at home with devices that create white noise, such as fans, air conditioners, static from the radio, or with the “ocean sounds” on certain clock radios. There are numerous other treatments that are offered by various facilities that may or may not be useful.  These treatments include medications (vitamins, antidepressants, anti-seizure medications, anti-anxiety medications), biofeedback, and tinnitus retraining programs with or without the use of tinnitus maskers.

By Joseph Chang, MD