Savvy Senior: No cure for tinnitus, but many options for relief
March 6, 2011
DEAR SAVVY SENIOR:
What can you tell me the about the constant ear-ringing syndrome known as tinnitus? At age 56, I have had it for several years but it has gotten more and more noticeable lately. Is there anything I can do? -- Ringing Rhonda
Tinnitus (pronounced ti-NIGHT-us) is a common disorder that affects nearly one in six Americans. Here's what you should know along with some tips and treatments that may help.
Tinnitus is the sensation of hearing a ringing, buzzing, roaring, hissing or whistling sound in one or both ears when no external sound is present. The sounds, which can vary in pitch and loudness, are usually worse when background noise is low, so you may be most aware of it at night when you're trying to fall asleep in a quiet room. For most people tinnitus is merely annoying, but for many others it can be extremely disturbing.
It's important to know that tinnitus is not a disease, but a symptom that can be caused by a variety of underlying conditions. The best way to find out what's causing your tinnitus is to see an audiologist, or ear, nose and throat doctor (otolaryngologist). The various things that can cause tinnitus are:
Exposure to loud noise. This is the most common cause.
Hearing loss. For many people, hearing loss can cause tinnitus.
Earwax. A buildup of wax deep in the ear canal can cause temporary tinnitus and hearing loss.
Medications. More than 200 drugs can cause ringing ears, including aspirin, especially when taken in high doses. For a list of drugs that can cause tinnitus, call the American Tinnitus Association at 800-634-8978.
Health conditions. Various medical conditions can also trigger tinnitus, such as high blood pressure, vascular disease, diabetes, allergies, thyroid problems, ear or sinus infections, Meniere's disease, otosclerosis, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) syndrome, a tumor, an injury to the head or neck and more.
While there's currently no cure for tinnitus, there are some ways to treat it depending on the cause. For example, if your tinnitus is caused by a medical condition, treating the condition may reduce or eliminate the noise. If you have wax buildup in your ears, removing it can help. Or, if you think a medication you're taking may be causing the problem, switching to a different drug or lowering the dosage may provide some relief.
Other treatment options for tinnitus that can help suppress or mask the sound so it's less bothersome are "sound therapies." These can be something as simple as a fan or a white-noise machine, or something more sophisticated like a small electronic masking device that you wear, or a music therapy device like Neuromonics (see neuromonics.com) that actually trains your brain not to hear the tinnitus. Or, if you have hearing loss, hearing aids can help mask your tinnitus by improving your ability to hear sounds. Your audiologist or hearing health professional can help you with these options.
There are also certain medications that help, too. While there are currently no drugs specifically designed to treat tinnitus, anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants, antihistamines, anesthetics, as well as drugs intended to treat alcoholism, epilepsy and even Alzheimer's have been effective in relieving symptoms in some people. Alternative treatments like acupuncture, hypnosis, massage therapy, biofeedback, meditation, the herb ginkgo and zinc supplements are also worth looking into. And counseling and support groups can be helpful.
Other way to help quiet the noise is to avoid things that can aggravate the problem like salt, artificial sweeteners, sugar, alcohol, tonic water, tobacco and caffeine. And protect yourself from loud noises by wearing earplugs.
For more information, visit the American Tinnitus Association at ata.org
Source: Jim Miller, Savvy Senior, March 6, 2011. Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC "Today" show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.