- Written by Jim Miller Jim Miller
Dear Savvy Senior,
Are there any new treatments you know of that can help with the constant ear-ringing syndrome known as tinnitus? I’ve had it for years, but it’s gotten worse the older I get.
– Ringing Louder at 62
Tinnitus is a common condition that affects around 45 million Americans but is usually more prevalent in the 60-and-older age group.
Here’s what you should know along with some tips and treatments that may help.
What is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus (pronounced “tin-NIGHT-us” or “TIN-a-tus”) 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 more 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.
Tinnitus itself is not a disease but rather a symptom of some other underlying health condition. The best way to find out what’s causing your tinnitus is to see an audiologist or an otolaryngologist—a doctor who specializes in ear, nose, and throat diseases (commonly called an ENT).
The various causes of tinnitus are:
- Age-related and noise-induced hearing loss—this is the most common cause.
- Middle ear obstructions, which are usually caused by a buildup of earwax deep in the ear canal.
- The side effects of many different prescription and nonprescription medicines like aspirin, ibuprofen, certain blood pressure medicines and diuretics, some antidepressants, cancer medicines, and antibiotics.
- Various medical conditions such as high blood pressure, vascular disease, diabetes, allergies, thyroid problems, ear or sinus infections, Ménière’s disease, Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, otosclerosis, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder, a tumor, an injury to the head or neck, traumatic brain injury, depression, stress, and more.
Treating the Causes
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 wax buildup in your ears or a medical condition (high blood pressure, thyroid problem, etc.), treating the problem may reduce or eliminate the noise.v
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.
Another treatment option for tinnitus that can help suppress or mask the sound so it’s less bothersome are “sound therapies.”
These can be as simple as a fan or a white noise machine or something more sophisticated like a modified-sound or notched-music device, such as Neuromonics (www.neuromonics.com) or the Levo System (www.otoharmonics.com), which 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 actual sounds. There are even hearing aids today that come with integrated sound-generation technology that delivers white noise or customized sounds to the patient on an ongoing basis. Your audiologist or ENT can help you with these options.
There are also certain medications that may help. While currently there’s no FDA-approved drugs specifically designed to treat tinnitus, some anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants have been effective in reliving symptoms.
Behavioral therapies, counseling, and support groups can also be helpful.
Other measures you can take to help quiet the noise include avoiding food substances that can aggravate the problem, such as salt, artificial sweeteners, sugar, alcohol, tonic water, tobacco, and caffeine. And protect yourself from loud noises by wearing earplugs.
For more information on tinnitus treatment options, visit the American Tinnitus Association at www.ata.org.
Jim Miller is a regular contributor to the NBC Today show and author of The Savvy Senior Book. www.savvysenior.org