Tinnitus is a hearing disorder that is characterized by hearing of noises, basically buzzing, chirping, roaring, clicking or ringing in the ears of the people affected. The noise can be heard in one or both ears and it varies in pitch and level of interference with hearing. It can be noticed especially when in quiet places or at night when trying to catch sleep in a room that is free from noises. But do we know exactly what causes tinnitus?
Tinnitus has an adverse effect on concentration and can sometimes be so loud that it can affect hearing and perception of real sound. Despite the annoyance and the bothersome nature of tinnitus, it is not a medical condition but a symptom of an underlying hearing disorder that can arise due to factors such as loss of hearing due to ageing, an injury to the ear or problems affecting the blood circulatory system.
The Different Types Of Tinnitus
The condition can cause complications that may lead to fatigue, sleeping problems, poor concentration, memory loss, depression, anxiety among other problems.
Before we go on to look at possible causes it’s important to recognise the two different types / classifications of tinnitus:
It is the most common type of tinnitus and is caused by problems to the various parts of the ear. The noises, in this case, can only be heard by the person affected.
Trauma or noise-induced hearing loss represents the most common cause of subjective tinnitus.
Also common factors include earwax accumulation, external ear infection, Meniere disease, age-related hearing loss and middle ear effusion. Often an exact cause cannot be identified.
This is where the noises can only be heard by the doctor when they are examining the patient. But this type of complication is rare.
In this case, the pulsating nature of the sound results from altered blood flow, atherosclerosis or blood turbulence near the ear. In fact, problems in the circulatory system very often lead to the appearance of ringing noise in the ears.
What Causes Tinnitus?
There’s no one specific cause. However, a number of factors have been attributed to causing tinnitus common among them;
Inner ear cell damage
This is the most common cause of tinnitus. The inner ear has tiny hair cells which move in relation to pressure exerted on them by sound waves. The movement triggers ear cells to send an electric wave through the auditory nerve to the brain which then interprets the signals as sound. Any abnormality suffered by the hair cells such as getting broken or bent, they start sending random signals to the brain which then causes the noises in the ears.
Hearing loss due to ageing
Many people tend to lose their hearing with age a condition medically termed as presbycusis mostly after attaining 60 years. This is due to the deterioration of parts of the ear associated with hearing most notably the cochlea. Loss of hearing, in turn, causes tinnitus.
Exposure to loud noises
Exposing your ears to loud noises such as those made by heavy equipment and machinery, firearms, large music systems, chainsaws among others can cause tinnitus. Playing loud music on electronic equipment such as MP3’s and iPods for prolonged periods of time can lead to tinnitus. If the exposure occurs for short periods of time then the condition is likely to go away after some time but if it occurs for long periods of time then it can cause permanent damage to the ears consequently causing permanent tinnitus. Exposure to one time extremely loud noise such as a gunshot can lead to permanent tinnitus
The blockage caused by the accumulation of ear wax
The role of ear wax is to prevent the entry of dirt into the inner ear by trapping it and also inhibit the growth of bacteria. The ear has a natural mechanism of getting rid of or cleaning of excess ear wax. When the ear wax accumulates to excessive levels, it becomes difficult for it to be naturally washed away leading to blockage of the ear hence hearing loss or irritation of the eardrum consequently causing tinnitus.
Changes to the ear bone
Abnormal growth of the ear bone may sometimes occur for example otosclerosis which is characterized by stiffening of the bones in the middle ear. This leads to hearing complications which in turn may cause tinnitus. The condition is mostly genetic and it runs in families.
Injuries to the head or neck
Injuries to the head or neck may cause damage to the inner ear, the brain or nerves related to transmission of hearing signals. This, in turn, causes difficulties in hearing hence tinnitus. This cause mostly affects only one ear.
Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders
This is the joint on each side of the head just in front of the ears. Problems to this joint may lead to tinnitus.
This is a disorder that affects the inner ear and is normally caused by abnormal inner ear fluid pressure. Tinnitus is one of the early indicators of the Meniere’s disease.
Blood vessel disorders
Although in rare cases, blood vessel disorders may lead to tinnitus. In such cases, it is referred to as pulsatile tinnitus. It is caused by such factors as high blood pressure, head and neck tumors, atherosclerosis and turbulent blood flow.
Some types of medication
In some cases, the use of some types of medicines may lead to or worsen tinnitus. Sometimes simply stopping these medications can cure your tinnitus. Obviously consult with your doctor first.
Some of the most common types of medicines known to cause tinnitus are; cancer medicines, antibiotics, quinine, diuretics, certain depressants, aspirins (when taken in high doses), sedatives and anti-inflammatory drugs. Check the side effects with a medical professional.
It is estimated that about 1 out of 5 people across the world are affected by this condition. Although it has not been adequately proved, it is alleged that tinnitus tends to worsen in people who take alcohol or smoke cigarettes and also eat certain foods. Fatigue and stress are the other factors that make the condition worsen.
Gender has also been proved to be a factor affecting tinnitus. It’s proven that men are more likely to suffer from tinnitus compared to women. It is advised that you seek medical attention immediately if your tinnitus occurs suddenly with no apparent cause. Especially if it is causing you to lose your hearing. You also need to see a doctor if it occurs after an upper respiratory problem such as after having a cold and it persists to more than a week after the first experience.
Treating the underlying condition if there are any is the surest way of stopping tinnitus.