CINCINNATI—People tend to spend more time outdoors in the summer, and their exposure to loud noise increases. Whether the noise is from powerboats, firecrackers, lawnmowers or motorcycles, a University of Cincinnati (UC) otolaryngologist encourages people to take precautions to protect their ears.
Tinnitus (perception of sound in the ears) affects most people at some point in their lives and is often due to hearing loss or the result of exposure to loud noises. Other causes include stress, ear-damaging drugs, ear infections, jaw misalignment, brain or head injury and, in rare cases, a tumor on the auditory nerve.
“It’s important for people to realize they can help minimize tinnitus caused by loud noises,” says Ravi Samy, MD, assistant professor of otolaryngology. “The cochlear hair cells in your ears can be damaged when listening to loud music or working around loud equipment (such as lawnmowers) for prolonged periods of time, which can lead to hearing loss.
“Protecting your hearing can be as simple as turning the music down and wearing ear plugs when mowing, attending concerts, working with machinery or engaged in other loud activities.”
The American Tinnitus Association estimates that 50 million Americans suffer from the condition. For most it’s temporary, but for 12 million people it can disrupt their lives.
“Most of the time when patients come to me, they have severe tinnitus,” says Dr. Samy. “Their quality of life is affected—the noise they hear in their ears disrupts their sleep, and they have trouble concentrating and focusing on work.”
Tinnitus is a subjective noise, and people often describe it as “ringing in the ears.” Dr. Samy says patients also describe hearing noises like crickets, whooshing, pulsing and buzzing, among others.
“A lot of patients with tinnitus get frustrated because they may have been told to just live with the noise—deal with it,” he says. “They feel like they can’t do anything. There are things that can be done for tinnitus, but they’re not quick fixes.”
Dr. Samy says many patients with tinnitus are most affected when it’s quiet around them, such as when they are trying to sleep. “Tinnitus sufferers need something pleasant to distract their mind—a radio or TV during the day and ‘white noise’ at night, like an air conditioner, fan, a radio on static, etc.,” he says.
Other treatments for tinnitus include:
- Hearing aids: It’s important for people with tinnitus to undergo a hearing test, because they may have hearing loss. “The brain has the ability to change itself to adapt to various situations, and tinnitus may be one way the brain adapts to hearing loss,” says Dr. Samy.
- Medications: Currently, there are no drugs specifically for the treatment of tinnitus. “People who suffer from depression or anxiety may also have tinnitus. The stress of dealing with the noise in their ears can really affect them psychologically,” says Dr. Samy. Medications are available to treat these conditions and may lessen the severity of tinnitus.
- Tinnitus retraining (sound therapy): A device called a masker, which is similar to a hearing aid, emits a steady, low-level broadband sound, like that of rainfall, which can reduce the contrast between a tinnitus sufferer’s internal sound and the quiet of the outside world.
- Biofeedback: Stress is a major contributor to tinnitus. Biofeedback tests measure heart rate and temperature as people respond to stressors or things that relax them. “Over time, people can figure out what they were thinking about at the time of stress and how they relaxed. This can help them focus on whatever relaxes them, such as prayer, meditation, soothing music, etc.,” Dr. Samy says.
- Nontraditional treatments: “Some herbs, such as ginkgo and garlic, have been said to help people deal with tinnitus,” says Dr. Samy. “It’s up to the individual if they want to try herbal supplements—it’s their money, time and resources. Having said that, it’s important for people to realize that herbs can cause complications and they need to be sure they let their health-care provider know what they’re taking. Also, there are few, if any, research studies to date that have proven herbs are actually effective for tinnitus.”
Other treatments include acupuncture and hypnosis. Dr. Samy points out that while it’s unclear how effective these activities are, they promote relaxation, which is key in helping people reduce the severity of tinnitus.
“Reducing stress and increasing relaxation are probably the most important things people can do for tinnitus,” says Dr. Samy. “I know that can be difficult, and it takes patience, but it’s one of the best ways to control the condition.”
May 21–27 is National Tinnitus Awareness Week.