The word tinnitus means the tinkling of bells, but for the 50 million Americans who experience it, tinnitus is far less pleasant.

The low- or high-pitched roar or ringing that comes from inside your own head can be a maddening ailment that can interfere with daily activities and lead to high rates of depression and anxiety. Fortunately, you can do something about it. 

What is this ringing?

For most people, tinnitus is not caused by a serious disease that needs to be treated: It is most often a symptom of a problem with your hearing system called sensorineural hearing loss. The cause is nerve damage from aging or noise exposure.

If you have tinnitus that bothers you, makes you anxious, keeps you awake at night, or lasts longer than six months, you need to talk to your primary care doctor, who can start by looking for treatable causes of tinnitus, such as wax near your eardrum or fluid in your middle ear.

Since tinnitus is usually associated with hearing loss, your doctor may send you to a hearing specialist called an audiologist for a detailed hearing test (audiogram). If your tinnitus is associated with sensorineural hearing loss, you may be diagnosed with primary tinnitus.

If your hearing test doesn’t suggest sensorineural hearing loss, you may need to see an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist to see if you have secondary tinnitus, which may be caused by a treatable condition such as stiffening of the little bones inside your middle ear or arthritis of your jaw joint. People with secondary tinnitus may experience ringing in just one ear, a pulsating ring, dizziness, and jaw pain. If your hearing test or ENT exam suggests secondary tinnitus, your ENT doctor may order imaging studies of your hearing system.

Can tinnitus be treated?

Secondary tinnitus can often be treated by addressing the underlying cause. In some cases, a simple medication change can make a difference. Aspirin, acetaminophen, diuretics, and antibiotics are just some of the drugs that can cause the disorder.

Primary tinnitus has no cure, but there are management strategies to make it less bothersome. Many people get used to the sound and stop noticing it, but there is hope if you’re not one of them.

  • Using a hearing aid can improve your ability to hear regular sounds, which can drown out the tinnitus.
  • Sound therapies may also help. Using a masking sound device, like a white noise machine, listening to pleasant sounds can cover the bothersome noise of tinnitus. Sound therapies may be especially helpful at night when tinnitus may seem loudest and interfere with sleep.
  • Medications or talk therapy (psychotherapy) can help treat anxiety or depression that can either accentuate or result from tinnitus.
  • Some people find that a healthy lifestyle that includes a healthy diet, exercise, and stress reduction improves symptoms.
  • Don’t waste your money on supplements and other over-the-counter medications that claim to treat tinnitus. Treatments like ginkgo biloba, melatonin, vitamins, zinc, and lipo-flavonoid have no evidence to support their use.
  • Avoid loud noise exposure that can make tinnitus worse.

Future options

In the future, tinnitus sufferers may find relief with painless electromagnetic stimulation given through electrodes placed on the scalp. Early research shows that about 40 percent of people benefit from this therapy.

In deep brain electromagnetic stimulation, a more invasive option, the electrodes are placed in the brain. Some patients with Parkinson’s disease who coincidently had tinnitus were found to have a reduction in the tinnitus after treatment with deep brain electromagnetic stimulation.

No one solution works for everyone, so you need to partner with your health-care providers to find what works best for you.

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