Most of us have experienced a temporary ‘ringing’ in our ears at some point in our lives. Maybe it was the result of a concert that was too loud and way too much fun. Maybe it was due to a loud noise exposure at work. Whatever the cause, we know that this temporary condition is frustrating and distracting.
For people with tinnitus, that extra sound in the ear, or ears, is not temporary. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Tinnitus (TIN-ih-tus) is the perception of noise or ringing in the ears. A common problem, tinnitus affects about 1 in 5 people. Tinnitus isn’t a condition itself — it’s a symptom of an underlying condition, such as age-related hearing loss, ear injury or a circulatory system disorder.”
Those living with tinnitus have described the sounds as ringing, buzzing, roaring, clicking, or hissing. What differentiates tinnitus from an occasional ringing is its persistence. The sound is constantly present. It’s not difficult to imagine how an unrelenting sound in the ear can negatively impact everyday life.
There is a saying in the hearing healthcare community – “We hear with our ears, but we listen with our brains.” The ear/brain connection has been well documented through research. So, if the brain is such a crucial part of the hearing process, how is it affected by the extra sounds associated with tinnitus?
A recent study from the University of Illinois found that tinnitus keeps the brain on alert more and in its default mode less in participants with chronic tinnitus. The study used functional MRI to observe brain function and structure in participants with tinnitus. Our brains have an alert mode and a default rest mode. When we’re using our brain power we’re in alert mode. When we’re in a relaxed state, letting our minds wander, we’re in default mode. The brains of study participants with chronic tinnitus spent more time in the alert mode than both the control group and participants with recent-onset tinnitus. This may support the fact that many tinnitus sufferers often report elevated levels of fatigue.
In addition to fatigue, those living with tinnitus also report irritability, decreased social satisfaction and depression. While the study shed light on the brain structures affected by tinnitus, there is no cure. There are some research efforts focused on determining if physical activity and practiced mindfulness can improve the condition.
One nationwide survey of 46,000 people with tinnitus found that hearing aids may provide some relief from tinnitus because they amplify the background noises giving the brain something else to focus on. Since hearing loss and tinnitus are often linked, addressing the hearing loss may help alleviate the discomfort associated with long-term tinnitus.
Tinnitus is often a lonely condition because the noise has no external cause and therefore can’t be heard by others. This may lead to patients feeling like no one believes the severity of their symptoms. If you’re struggling with hearing loss or tinnitus, make an appointment for an evaluation and a personalized hearing health plan.