An estimated 50 million Americans experience some form of tinnitus everyday. Tinnitus is the perception of sound when there is no sound present in one’s physical environment. Common descriptors of tinnitus include: ringing, hissing, roaring, and static. Tinnitus can be temporary or constant.
Temporary tinnitus is likely to occur after exposure to excessive noise levels, including but not limited to attending a concert, use of power tools or firearms as well as close proximity to an unexpected transient noise like an explosion. These exposures often result in a temporary threshold shift of hearing in conjunction with some tinnitus perception. These changes often subside over a short time post-exposure.
Constant tinnitus is often associated with damage done to the auditory system at some point in time. Possible causes include: hearing loss, ototoxicity from medications known to be toxic to the auditory system, head injury, auditory disorders and tumors of the auditory system. In most cases it is a cumulative effect of one or more of these causes.
If a person experiences a sudden onset in tinnitus perception or is bothered by long-standing constant tinnitus then he or she should seek care from a professional. An audiologist is a specialist who diagnoses and treats disorders of the auditory system. The first step is often a comprehensive audiological evaluation to assess the peripheral auditory system. A thorough medical history, a traditional hearing test as well as several objective tests are conducted to determine how each part of the auditory system is functioning.
After initial testing is complete, the audiologist will review the test results and advise of further referrals and/or recommendations. Red flags from testing include: asymmetrical hearing thresholds between right ear and left ear, reported combinations of symptoms that can indicate auditory disease (e.g., Meniere’s disease), and unilateral symptoms that can indicate abnormal growth (e.g., acoustic neuroma, vestbular schwannoma, glomus jugular tumor). If a red flag is identified then a referral to an otolaryngologist (i.e. ear, nose, & throat specialist) is warranted.
The otolaryngologist might order additional tests and scans (e.g., magnetic resonance imaging, or computerized tomography) to detect abnormal growth or masses in the auditory system. If a growth is detected then surgery may be needed to remove the abnormality. Non-invasive treatment options to reduce the perception of tinnitus include hearing aids, tinnitus retraining therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy, all of which would be implemented by the audiologist.