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Photo of man tackling tinnitus metaphorically when he's really tackling a quarterback.

Tinnitus is a condition that affects more than 45 million people in this country, according to the National Tinnitus Association. If you have it, rest assured you are not alone. There is no cure, and it’s not always clear why some people get tinnitus. For many, the trick to living with it is to find ways to manage it. The ultimate checklist to tackle tinnitus is an excellent place to start.

Understanding Tinnitus

About one in five people are walking around hearing noises that no one else can hear because they suffer from tinnitus. Medically, tinnitus is described as the perception of a phantom sound due to an underlying medical problem. In other words, it’s a symptom, not an illness itself.

The most common reason people develop tinnitus is hearing loss. Think of it as the brain’s way of filling in some gaps. Most of the time, your mind works to interpret the sound you hear and then decides if you need to know about it. For example, your spouse talking to you is just sound waves until the inner ear converts them into electrical impulses. The brain translates the electrical impulses into words that you can understand.

Sound is all around you, but you don’t “hear” it all. The brain filters out the noise it doesn’t think is important to you. You may not hear the wind blowing, for instance. You can feel it, but the brain masks the sound of it passing by your ears because it’s not essential that you hear it. If you were able to listen to every sound, it would be both distracting and confusing.

When someone develops certain kinds of hearing loss, there are less electrical impulses for the brain to interpret. It waits for them, but due to damage in the inner ear, they never come. When that happens, the brain may try to create a sound of its own to fill that space.

For tinnitus suffers, that sound is:

  • Buzzing

  • Ringing

  • Clicking

  • Hissing

  • Roaring

The phantom noise might be high pitched, low pitched, loud or soft.

Hearing loss is not the only reason you might have tinnitus. Other possible causes include:

  • Loud noises around you

  • Earwax build up

  • Ear bone changes

  • Meniere’s disease

  • TMJ disorder

  • Head injury

  • Neck injury

  • Acoustic neuroma

  • Atherosclerosis

  • Tumor in the head or neck

  • High blood pressure

  • Poor blood flow in the neck

  • Malformed capillaries

  • Medication

Although physically harmless, tinnitus is linked to anxiety and depression and can create complications like difficulty sleeping and high blood pressure.

Prevention Is Your Ear’s Best Friend

Like with most things, prevention is the is how you avoid a problem. Protecting your hears reduces your chance of hearing loss later in life. Tips to protect your ear health include:

  • Avoiding long-term exposure to loud noises at work or home.

  • Reducing the amount of time you spend wearing headphones or earbuds.

  • Seeing a doctor if you have an ear infection.

Get your hearing checked every few years, too. The test not only alerts you to a hearing loss problem, but it allows you to get treatment or make lifestyle changes to prevent further damage.

If You Do Hear the Ringing

Ringing means you have tinnitus, but it doesn’t tell you why you have it or how you got it. A little trial and error might, though.

Avoid wearing headphones or earbuds entirely and see if the sound stops over time.

Evaluate your noise exposure. Were you around loud noise the night before the ringing started? For instance, did you:

  • Go to a concert

  • Attend a party

  • Work or sit near an unusually loud noise

  • Listen to the music of TV with headphones or earbuds

If the answer is yes to any of those scenarios, chances are the tinnitus is temporary.

If the Tinnitus Doesn’t Go Away

The next step would be to get an ear exam. Your physician will look for possible causes of the tinnitus like:

  • Ear wax

  • Inflammation

  • Infection

  • Ear damage

  • Stress levels

Specific medication might cause this problem too such as:

  • Aspirin

  • Antibiotics

  • Cancer Meds

  • Water pills

  • Quinine medications

  • Antidepressants

Making a change might clear up the tinnitus.

If there is no apparent cause, then the doctor can order a hearing test, or you can schedule one on your own. If you do have hearing loss, hearing aids can reduce the ringing and improve your situation.

How Is Tinnitus Treated?

Since tinnitus isn’t an illness, but rather a side effect of something else, the first step would be to treat the cause. If you have high blood pressure, medication will lower it, and the tinnitus should disappear.

For some, the only answer is to live with the tinnitus, which means finding ways to suppress it. White noise machines are useful. They create the noise the brain is missing and the ringing stops. You can also use a fan, humidifier or dehumidifier to get the same effect.

Tinnitus retraining is another approach. You wear a device that delivers a tone to mask the frequencies of the tinnitus. It can help you learn not to focus on it. Your doctor may prescribe a medication, too, such as certain antidepressants like amitriptyline or Xanax.

You will also want to find ways to avoid tinnitus triggers. They are not the same for each person, so start keeping a diary. When the tinnitus begins, write down everything right before you heard the ringing.

  • What did you eat or drink?

  • What sound did you hear?

  • What were you doing?

The diary will allow you to track patterns. Caffeine is a known trigger, so if you had a double espresso each time, you know to order something else in the future.

Tinnitus affects your quality of life, so finding ways to reduce its impact or eliminate it is your best hope.

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