If you’re over age 55, there’s a 1 in 5 chance you deal with chronic ringing and buzzing in your ears that very likely has been a nuisance for years.
Audiologists and physicians who specialize in the physiology of hearing call it tinnitus (pronounced tin-EYE-tis). It’s the perception of “phantom noise” — sounds that are not really there.
Tinnitus is an auditory irritant for as many as 50 million Americans, 20 percent of whom are over age 55. Worldwide, it affects quality of life for an estimated 250 million people.
According to the American Tinnitus Association, tinnitus is the No. 1 service-connected disability affecting U.S. military veterans from all periods of service.
“It’s a very common complaint, both for patients with and without some hearing loss,” said Maura Marks, an audiologist who heads up Speech-Language and Hearing Associates of Greater Boston. “Usually they are very anxious, depressed or having a hard time trying to cope.”
What triggers tinnitus remains a medical unknown. Exposure to loud noise, in a single episode or over time, is an obvious culprit — tinnitus is something of an occupational hazard for rock musicians exposed to blaring music and amplifiers. U2 frontman Bono, Eric Clapton, Ozzy Osbourne, Pete Townshend of The Who and Neil Young are all known to suffer from tinnitus.
The noises sufferers hear vary, from ringing, buzzing, clicking, whistling and hissing to a roaring similar to the sound made by breaking waves. For some, the noises are always there. For others, the sounds come and go and can vary in duration and intensity, affecting hearing and activities requiring quiet concentration, such as reading or falling asleep.
Like pain, tinnitus is subjective, which complicates efforts by audiology researchers to quantify or measure it. The Mayo Clinic’s ear specialists describe tinnitus not as a condition in itself, but as a symptom of other underlying problems, ranging from ear injury or infection to high blood pressure and age-related hearing loss.
Marks believes tinnitus is caused by damaged neurons that have become hyperactive. It’s not unlike how neurons damaged in amputations can cause amputees to feel pain in a “phantom limb” that is no longer there, she said.
“In the case of the ear, the response of those damaged neurons is perceived not as pain, but as sound,” Marks said.
The Mayo Clinic has found a link between tinnitus and post-traumatic stress disorder, a finding supported by
the Department of Veterans Affairs’ guidelines for health care providers who treat veterans’ hearing problems. The guidelines state that tinnitus is frequently triggered by psychological factors, such as bereavement, stress and anxiety.
Through 2011, more than 840,000 veterans were on the service-connected tinnitus roster. Military members are often exposed to engine and weapon noises as well as the loud detonation of improvised explosive devices.
While there is no shortage of herbal remedies on the market promising tinnitus relief, there is no known effective treatment or cure. The few prescription drugs that have been shown to sometimes turn down the volume on tinnitus come with potentially serious side effects.
“Very often, when people with tinnitus are fitted with a hearing aid for general hearing loss, they find it masks the tinnitus out,” said Amy Engler Booth, an audiologist and clinical faculty member at the University of Maine’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders in Orono. “Sometimes it’s related to medications, and people can work with their physicians to see if a medication change is possible or would help.”
So-called “white noise” machines that simulate the sounds of ocean waves, falling rain and other soothing background sounds can be helpful, too. Marks sometimes prescribes “neuromonics” treatment, which delivers a soothing blend of white noise and music through a device similar to an MP3 player.
Marks also encourages people with tinnitus to avoid triggers, such as caffeine and alcohol.