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Tinnitus: The Sounds You Hear in Silence

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What is tinnitus?

1 Tinnitus in bed hands on ears

Tinnitus is the perception of sound where no external source for the sound exists. The sound can be anything from humming to whistling, buzzing, hissing or crackling. The sound can be in one or both ears, intermittent or continuous, with intensities ranging from mild to severe. Tinnitus can be caused by a number of different factors, including excess earwax, a medication side effect, an ear infection, or a consequence of hearing loss. In the case of hearing loss, tinnitus may be caused by the brain attempting to compensate for a lack of sound input from the inner ear. As a result, a phantom sound is perceived (much like phantom pain might be felt in an amputated limb). Dr. Coates can help determine whether there is a simple fix (earwax removal or a change in medication), or whether long-term management of tinnitus is needed.

If you are experiencing tinnitus, you are not alone. The Center for Disease Control estimates that 10% of the adult US population (~25 million people) has experienced tinnitus over the past year.* I am one of those 25 million people, and also a hearing health researcher. Based on our experiences, there are some concrete steps that you can take to help manage tinnitus.

Tips for managing tinnitus

There are a number of ways that you can manage the discomfort of tinnitus. For most, the most difficult times for tinnitus are the minutes (or hours) between the time their head hits the pillow and when they fall asleep. Your quiet bedroom that used to be soothing for sleep can make the sounds of tinnitus more noticeable. You may find it helpful to mask the sound of tinnitus with a white noise machine next to your bed, or a quiet radio on a sleep timer. There are phone apps that will also allow you to play the sound of a waterfall or a gentle rain for a period of time. Dr. Coates can help you with this. During the day, you can find some relief in the masking sounds of quiet music, a fountain, or other locations with low-level sounds. It can be very comforting to be in control of the sounds that you hear. As always, it’s important to protect your ears from loud noises that can aggravate tinnitus or damage your hearing. Be aware of sporting events, loud concerts, lawnmowers, and other excessively noisy places and things. We always recommend that you carry hearing protection (ear plugs) in your purse or in your vehicle for the unexpectedly loud venue. If you don’t have access to ear plugs, stop by the clinic and we will give you a set at no cost!

You may find it helpful to communicate with others who have experienced tinnitus. There are online and in-person tinnitus support groups where patients can share personal experiences with one another in a compassionate setting. One resource for support group information is the American Tinnitus Association:

https://www.ata.org/managing-your-tinnitus/support-network

These support groups are not meant to substitute for a medical evaluation or treatment from Dr. Coates or some other hearing healthcare provider. However, these groups are a good reminder that you are not alone.

Dr. Coates is a tinnitus treatment specialist. This designation is achieved through special education and training in the area of evaluation and treatment of tinnitus. We want to help if you are struggling with tinnitus. If the ringing and buzzing in your ears is keeping you up at night, Dr. Coates can help. Give us a call today to set up an appointment.

Special thanks to Dr. Gail Seigel at the Center for Hearing & Deafness at the University of Buffalo for her contributions to this article.