Tinnitus itself is not a disease process but a symptom of an underlying issue. A number of health conditions can cause or worsen tinnitus, an annoying ringing, buzzing or hissing sound that occurs in the ears of nearly 50 million Americans. In many cases, an exact cause is never found.
If you experience tinnitus, you shouldn’t worry. Very rarely is tinnitus caused by something that is dangerous to your health. Understanding what tinnitus is and what could possibly cause it or exacerbate it can help alleviate some of the stress and irritation that most tinnitus sufferers report experiencing.
A common cause of tinnitus is damage to the inner ear hair cells of the cochlea, a spiral-shaped cavity in the bone of the skull just behind the ear that resembles a snail shell and contains nerve endings essential for hearing. These tiny, delicate hairs sit in a fluid and move in relation to the pressure of sound waves through the fluid.
This movement triggers an electrical signal through the auditory nerve that travels from the ear to the brain. The brain then interprets these signals as sound. If the hairs inside the cochlea are bent or broken, they can produce random electrical impulses to the brain, which are then interpreted as sound. This sound is what we call tinnitus.
Other causes of tinnitus include middle ear problems, chronic health conditions and injuries to or conditions that affect the auditory nerve or the hearing center of the brain.
In most instances, the exact cause of tinnitus is unknown. There are some health conditions, however, that are known to cause tinnitus:
- Exposure to Loud Sounds: Long-term noise exposure on the job is a leading cause of hearing loss, especially in men. Loud noises from industrial equipment, construction sights and from the use of firearms by our military are common sources of noise-related hearing loss. Personal music players, such as MP3 players or iPods can cause noise induced hearing loss over time as well. Tinnitus can also occur with short-term exposure to loud noise. For instance, you may experience a ringing in the ears after attending a loud concert. This type of tinnitus usually goes away within hours while long-term exposure to loud sound can cause permanent damage.
- Excessive Earwax: Earwax protects your ear canal by trapping dirt or other intruders and by helping to slow the growth of the bacteria and fungus that naturally occur in the ear. When too much earwax accumulates, however, it can be difficult for the ear to rid itself of the wax, which occurs naturally with time. Excessive wax accumulation can cause hearing loss and a low pitched ringing or roaring in the affected ear.
- Changes in the Bones of the Middle Ear: Stiffening of the joints between the bones of the middle ear, the smallest bones of the body, is called otosclerosis. This stiffness happens gradually and may affect hearing as well as cause tinnitus. This condition, often referred to as arthritis of the middle ear tends to run in families.
- Age-Related Hearing Loss: Accumulation of birthdays happens to the best of us. For many people, hearing worsens as those birthdays accumulate. Hearing loss in the high frequencies is the most common cause of tinnitus. The medical term for hearing loss due to the aging process is presbycusis.
- Stress: It is suggested that stress increases pressure on the nerves that run up the back of the neck, increasing the likelihood of tinnitus. The exact source is unknown but increased tension in the muscles of the neck and shoulders is common in those who are exposed to situations of excessive long-term stress.
If you have tinnitus, talk to your doctor or hearing healthcare provider. He or she will make sure to pursue every avenue to determine what is causing the ringing in your ears.
Although tinnitus is not often curable, talking with your healthcare provider can start you down the right path toward finding a solution or, in the least, increasing your understanding of what may be causing it and what you need to do to relieve the stress and irritation that tinnitus often causes. Call today and make an appointment for a tinnitus evaluation. We’ll be happy to help.