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What is tinnitus?

May 11, 2019 By Jesse Ratner
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First, a little etymology. The word 'tinnitus’ is Latin for 'a ringing or jingling.' Today, it's known as the medical term for a ringing, roaring, clicking, hissing, or humming noise that, in most cases, only you can hear in your ear. It can be soft or loud. It can be a low- or a high-pitch sound. And if you’re experiencing it, you’re not alone.

Tinnitus is surprisingly common. According to the Mayo Clinic, nearly 1 in 5 people will experience it in their lifetime. Most who do are over 55. In fact, if you’ve been to a very loud concert, you may have experienced a minor form of tinnitus that gradually diminishes and disappears once the show ends. If it lasts more than 6 months, then it's called chronic tinnitus. While technically there are 2 types of tinnitus — subjective and objective tinnitus — most people who suffer from it have the subjective variety, which means no one else can hear the noise. For those who have it, it can add significant mental and emotional stress to their life.

Why we hear sounds that aren’t there

The human body is an amazing system of systems. The auditory system includes the outer, middle, and inner ear, as well as the auditory cortex. Although the cause of tinnitus can occur anywhere from the outer ear to the brain, often the source is in the inner ear. Specifically, in the cochlea — the small, spiral cavity in the inner ear that converts sound vibrations into nerve signals. In a healthy ear, sound vibrations reach the cochlea and cause tiny hairs to vibrate, and the vibrations travel as nerve impulses to the brain. But if those hair cells are damaged, the brain compensates by turning up the sensitivity to detect the signal. The resulting electrical noise is what we call tinnitus.

If you think you have tinnitus

It's important to understand that tinnitus is a symptom and could arise from a number of processes. Tinnitus may be caused by loud noise, as a side effect of medication (including some pain, kidney, and cancer medications), too much ear wax, tumors, age, and more. Types of tinnitus that require more urgent investigation include unilateral (ringing in one ear) or pulsatile (a throbbing ringing sound), as they may indicate a more concerning neurological or vascular problem.

It is important to talk to your primary care provider to better understand the cause of your tinnitus and if you require any further testing. Once a cause is determined, your provider will be able to discuss different treatment options such as hearing aids, sound generators (or maskers that create a constant white noise), and tinnitus retraining therapy.

If you think you have tinnitus, consider talking to your One Medical provider today.

Jesse Ratner

Jesse Ratner is a Bay Area writer and One Medical member since 2009.

The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

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