Tinnitus: what the "buzz" is all about

By Maj. Melissa Leccese, Army Hearing Program Staff Officer, U.S. Army Public Health CommandSeptember 30, 2013

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What tinnitus is. Even if you are unfamiliar with the term tinnitus, many of you may have experienced this distracting ringing, buzzing, clicking, roaring or rushing sound in the ears at one time or another.

What tinnitus isn't. Tinnitus is not a disease; however, it is likely related to an underlying condition. The most common condition that tinnitus relates to is noise exposure, both work-related and recreational. Other conditions that tinnitus may relate to include aging, ear or sinus infections, head or neck injury, heart or vascular disease, some medications, stress or fatigue.

Prevalence. An estimated 50 million Americans experience constant tinnitus. Over 16 million that suffer from tinnitus have sought medical attention to find relief. Among veterans, tinnitus is the most common service-connected disability.

Impacts. Tinnitus can interfere with ability to concentrate for short or long periods of time. It is most noticeable in quiet, not because the sound grows louder in this setting, but because the sound is more easily heard in a place where there is little sound competition. In severe cases, depression and insomnia plague the individual affected. Tinnitus can be a source of severe mental stress for some.

Causes. Despite ongoing research efforts, the exact cause of tinnitus is unclear. Tinnitus that is related to noise exposure is believed to be the result of damage or stress to cells in the inner ear. These cells are known as "hair cells" because of the hair-like projections that are attached to these cells. Hair cells play an important role in the hearing process and damage results in damaged hearing.

Prevention. Because noise-induced hearing loss is often related to tinnitus, any measures taken to limit hazardous levels of noise will help prevent tinnitus. In pre-existing cases, these protective measures will prevent tinnitus from worsening. Turning down the volume or moving away from the noise is a wise noise-limiting practice. Use hearing protection in situations where noise levels cannot be limited.

Cure. Sadly, there is no cure for tinnitus, but there are many treatments and treatment programs available that help some individuals cope with and manage this condition:

•Counseling programs exist for individuals as well as for groups that assist in changing reactions toward the tinnitus. A primary goal is to facilitate relaxation by decreasing awareness of the tinnitus.

•Individuals that have hearing loss in conjunction with the tinnitus may find treatment for both by using hearing aids. Hearing aids amplify speech and environmental sounds, which often makes the tinnitus less noticeable.

•Sound generators facilitate relaxation and sleep. These devices produce gentle, repetitive, soothing sounds such as waterfalls or soft music. Some sound generators can even be worn in the ear and are used as part of tinnitus retraining therapy.

Now that you know what the "buzz" is all about, you can make wise choices to prevent this troubling condition from happening to you. For those who are already experiencing tinnitus, there is help available in several different forms.

Related Links:

U.S. Army Public Health Command

The American Speech-Language Hearing Association

The American Tinnitus Association

American Academy of Audiology

Department of Veterans Affairs

The National Institute for Communication Disorders and Deafness