If you’ve ever attended a concert or listened to loud music and soon after heard a ringing in your ears, you’ve experienced a mild form of tinnitus. While it is often described as a “ringing,” tinnitus also can sound like roaring, clicking, hissing or buzzing. It may be soft or loud, high pitched or low pitched, and it can be heard in one or both ears.
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, roughly 10% of U.S. adults, or about 25 million people, experience tinnitus lasting at least five minutes. Tinnitus can range from a mild annoyance to a full-fledged problem that severely impacts one’s quality of life.
What is tinnitus?
Simply put, tinnitus is the sensation of hearing sound in the ears when no external sound is present. It is caused by damage to the hair cells in the inner ear from exposure to loud noises. These hairs are responsible for sending electrical impulses through the auditory nerve to the brain. When the hairs become damaged, they begin to “leak,” sending out random impulses to the brain.
A symptom rather than a disease, tinnitus can be triggered by many things, including prolonged noise exposure, infections, hearing loss and medications. It may even be triggered by stress.
According to Dr. Daniela Kite, an audiologist with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, tinnitus can be broadly categorized into two types: subjective tinnitus and objective tinnitus. Subjective tinnitus can only be heard by the individual, while objective tinnitus is extremely rare and can be heard by an outside observer — typically a medical professional using a stethoscope.
People who live with subjective tinnitus may notice the intensity or frequency can fluctuate. “Some common triggers include high stress, lack of sleep, high caffeine intake and high sodium intake,” Dr. Kite says.
Stress and tinnitus
Researchers are not entirely sure how stress triggers tinnitus. However, there is evidence to support the idea that tinnitus follows or coincides with a period of stress. High levels of stress affect hormones, blood pressure and how the brain functions.
When you experience stress, your brain triggers your nervous system to release a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline. The overproduction of adrenaline can reduce or even stop blood circulation to the ears, which can negatively impact hearing. The fragile hair cells in the inner ear help transform sound into electrical signals that the brain can understand. A reduction of blood flow to the ears can rob these cells of oxygen and nutrients, causing damage and hearing loss.
Stress can also sometimes worsen existing tinnitus. When people worry about tinnitus, they focus their attention on it and a vicious cycle arises. Stress makes tinnitus worse, which in turn, leads to greater stress.
Can tinnitus be cured?
Unfortunately, there is no known cure for tinnitus, but there are ways to manage it. “The most conservative management option is called ‘sound enrichment,’ or ‘sound therapy,’ which involves listening to soft relaxing sounds, like white noise or rain sounds,” Dr. Kite says.
The aim is to help alter one’s perception of or reaction to tinnitus. Sound can either help distract from tinnitus, or help the brain become more used to tinnitus and eventually, be able to ignore it.
Another option is hearing aids. By stimulating the hearing system with better access to sounds, the perception of tinnitus may be reduced. Behavioral therapy, stress management and relaxation techniques can also provide relief.
For people experiencing frequent tinnitus, Dr. Kite advises talking with your doctor.