If it seems like your ears ring constantly, it’s probably not crickets, your imagination, or the economy…and you’re not alone. You may have tinnitus, an inner ear ailment that affects between 25 million and 50 million Americans — with about 12 million people experiencing such severe symptoms that it affects their daily lives. The good news is that treatment, including hearing aids, can offer relief to some from the persistent ringing, buzzing or humming associated with tinnitus, according to the Better Hearing Institute.
Tinnitus can be intermittent or constant. Causes range from ear infections and exposure to extremely loud noises to underlying health problems, like allergies or heart and blood pressure problems. Often, sufferers are unable to pinpoint the cause of their tinnitus. “Tinnitus can have a direct impact on a person’s emotional well-being,” says Dr. Sergei Kochkin, BHI’s executive director. “Not only can their hearing be affected, but also their ability to sleep or concentrate.”
Kochkin and Dr. Richard Tyler, professor and editor of The Consumer Handbook on Tinnitus (Auricle Ink, 2008), published a survey of 230 hearing health professionals in the U.S. and Canada. Their survey found that 6 out of 10 patients reported some tinnitus relief when using hearing aids, and 2 out of 10 reported major relief. The symptoms of tinnitus “influence basic life functions such as socialization and relaxation,” the duo wrote. “In severe cases it can interfere with the individual’s ability to perform adequately on the job, or contribute to psychological disorders such as depression, suicide ideation, posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety and anger.”
Although tinnitus is actually common and can cause major life disruptions, the number of sufferers who seek treatment for tinnitus is relatively small. One reason might be that they mistakenly believe their condition is untreatable. Unfortunately, many doctors are also unaware of the latest treatment options, and as a result patients may think they simply have to learn to live with the noise.
“No one should ever ignore persistent tinnitus,” Kochkin says. “Not only is every individual entitled to a chance to regain his or her quality of life, but in rare cases tinnitus also can be a symptom of a more serious health issue that could demand medical intervention. What’s more, nearly everyone with tinnitus has hearing loss as well.”
In a recent large-scale survey of the American hearing impaired population, 39% (more than 9 million adult Americans) indicated they had not sought help for their hearing loss specifically because they also had tinnitus. “Research shows that untreated hearing loss has its own negative social, psychological, cognitive and health effects on the individual suffering from it,” Kochkin adds. “So those with both untreated tinnitus and untreated hearing loss suffers an even more diminished quality of life than individuals with just tinnitus or just hearing loss alone.”
While hearing aids are not a cure for tinnitus, they may be able to help tinnitus patients by:
1. Improving communication and reducing stress, which makes it easier to cope with the condition.
2. Amplifying background sounds, which can make tinnitus seem less prominent.
A new type of hearing aid, called the open fit hearing aid, could be particularly useful in alleviating tinnitus. The open fit hearing aid can reduce the effects of the tinnitus ringing sensation while still allowing sounds from the outside to pass into the ear. If you think you have tinnitus, have your hearing evaluated by an audiologist and to explore the use of hearing aids to alleviate tinnitus. The American Academy of Otolaryngology (AAO-HNS) and the American Tinnitus Association recommends these additional tips for minimizing the effects of tinnitus on your health:
1. Avoid exposure to loud sounds and noises
2. Get your blood pressure checked; if it is high, get your doctor’s help to control it
3. Decrease your intake of salt — salt impairs blood circulation
4. Avoid stimulants such as coffee, tea, cola, and tobacco
5. Exercise daily to improve your circulation
6. Get adequate rest and avoid fatigue
7. Eliminate or reduce some stress in different parts of your life; stress often makes tinnitus worse
8. Experiment by eliminating other possible sources of tinnitus aggravation, e.g. artificial sweeteners, sugar, alcohol, prescription or over-the-counter medications. (Do not stop taking medications without consulting with your healthcare professional about the possible ototoxic impact of your medications.)