Q:  What Causes Tinnitus?

A: Intermittent tinnitus is very common, and most people experience this brief phenomenon at some point in their lives.  However, tinnitus that is constant and more bothersome can often interfere with a persons day to day functioning.

Tinnitus can be caused by a number of health issues such as ear infection, wax impaction, underlying hearing loss, or trauma due to loud noises.  Stress and anxiety can also play a role in tinnitus, and we find it generally is initially caused by hearing loss then is exacerbated by either pre-existing anxiety or anxiety caused by hearing the tinnitus.

When the auditory center of the brain is not appropriately stimulated with sound (due to the hearing loss) the brain often seeks sound out elsewhere, and like an individual who experiences “phantom pain” in a limb that they no longer have, the person with tinnitus will perceive a “phantom sound” in the absence of an outside sound source.

Then there is often an event that causes the patient to notice this sound perception more, perhaps they are going through an increased period of stress, or they just start to notice it.

Human nature then causes the individual to focus on this sound and to analyze its pitch, loudness, and any fluctuations, which can increase a person’s anxiety about this and create a snowball effect.

The more they focus, the louder it gets.  The tinnitus then becomes louder, especially when the person is in a quiet environment or trying to fall asleep.  It can become quite bothersome in some instances, and treatment and management are recommended.

Q: What Does Tinnitus Sound Like?

A: Most often, people experience hearing a sudden high pitched tone that lasts for a few seconds then dissipates.  This is very normal, and everyone experiences it from time to time.  Constant bothersome tinnitus can fluctuate in loudness and pitch but will not completely go away.

Patients often report that sounds like a high pitch tone, screeching, roaring, crickets, hissing, steam pipe, clicking, or buzzing.  It generally sounds different for every person.

Q: How is Tinnitus Treated?

A: The first step is visiting with an audiologist who specializes in Tinnitus or an Otolaryngologist.  They will conduct a series of tests to assess the hearing mechanism in the ear, including Audiologic testing, tympanograms, and Otoacoustic Emissions.

Then they will do testing to assess the individual’s tinnitus such as Pitch and Loudness Matching, Tinnitus Maskability, and in some cases, High-Frequency Audiometry.

There is no medication or surgery for a person to get immediate relief, but the specialist will work towards Tinnitus Habituation.  This can take time and involves the individual doing simple strategies consistently to establish sound enrichment, stress management, and mindfulness.

The audiologist will work closely with the patient to customize their recommendations to assist with Tinnitus Habituation and to get them on the road to living comfortably with their tinnitus.

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Nancy Duncan, Au.D.

Nancy Duncan, Au.D.

Dr. Duncan’s Southcoast roots run deep, establishing a special connection to the community where she practices. A homegrown product, she graduated from Somerset High, just across the Taunton from Fall River, and received her B.S. in communication disorders and psychology from Worcester State College. Her master of science in audiology was awarded at the University of Arkansas in 1997, after which she worked for several private audiology practices in Arkansas, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.