If you experience tinnitus, you know how frustrating it can be, causing you to feel anxious, lose sleep and have trouble focusing. While it can’t be cured, it can be minimized—and hearing aids are one of the best tools to help.
Tinnitus is a disorder in which people perceive or “hear” sounds even when there are no external sounds present. It is most common in adults and affects around 15-20% of the population. While tinnitus is not a disease, it is typically caused by or associated with other medical conditions. There are three main types of tinnitus: subjective, objective and pulsatile.
Tinnitus symptoms manifest as different sounds: People report hearing buzzing, ringing, roaring, clicking, pulsing, whooshing or humming in their heads, either constantly or intermittently.
Symptoms also vary with the different types of tinnitus. With subjective tinnitus, the most common type, the sounds are only heard by the person with the condition. In objective tinnitus, the rarest type, the sounds can be heard by other people at close range (often a doctor using a stethoscope or doing an ear exam). When tinnitus occurs as a rhythmic pulsing or whooshing in time with the heartbeat, it’s called pulsatile tinnitus.
The specific sounds and whether they’re low- or high-pitched can offer clues as to what’s causing the problem, so it’s important to speak with a hearing care provider about the kinds of sounds you hear.
Tinnitus can be caused by a variety of medical conditions, infections or injuries. Some medications can even cause tinnitus.
Inner ear damage associated with hearing loss—whether it’s from frequent exposure to loud sounds or a single traumatic event (such as an explosion)—can also lead to tinnitus, often a high-pitched variety. Low-pitched ringing can signal that the tinnitus is being caused by a blockage in the ear canal or by middle ear issues, such as otosclerosis (which also includes a loss of hearing). Hearing clicking is often related to contractions of the muscles around the ears or TMJ issues, while the rhythmic pulsing associated with pulsatile tinnitus is generally related to vascular disorders.
To understand how hearing loss leads to tinnitus, it helps to start with a basic understanding of how hearing works. When sound waves enter our ears, they cause a chain reaction: the waves cause the eardrum to pulse, which sets three tiny bones—the malleus, the incus and the stapes—in motion turning the sound energy into mechanical energy; those bones then tap on a snail-shaped structure called the cochlea.
The cochlea is filled with fluid and contains tiny, delicate hair cells. When the cochlea is tapped, the fluid ripples over the hair cells, generating electricity or electrical energy that is sent to the brain through the auditory nerve. The brain then processes those electrical signals as sounds. If there’s an interruption in that process, either through an obstruction (something in the ear) or damage to the fragile hair cells, some degree of hearing loss is the result.
As we go through life, it’s not uncommon for hair cells to become damaged. That can result not just in hearing loss but in misfiring signals to our brains, making us perceive sounds that aren’t actually there—and that is tinnitus.
Ear infections often can cause a blockage in the ear canal or fluid to build up in the middle ear space. That buildup can become an obstruction and change the pressure in the ears, leading to tinnitus. In the case of infections, tinnitus is generally temporary. However, frequent infections increase the likelihood of permanent damage to the ears.
Several medical conditions and diseases are associated with tinnitus: diabetes, Meniere’s disease, certain thyroid conditions, autoimmune diseases and more. Given the variety of possibilities, it’s best to speak to a doctor if you experience both tinnitus and other symptoms.
Tinnitus might also develop alongside injuries to the head or neck, including concussions. These kinds of injuries often affect the inner ear, with the damage extending to the nerve and brain functions that are essential to the process of hearing.
Those looking for solutions often ask, “Do hearing aids help tinnitus?” Luckily, the answer is yes. Hearing aids help manage tinnitus through specifically designed programs. Some work by masking or the delivery of sounds—such as static or ocean waves—into your ears to override the perceived sounds of tinnitus.
Another option, called Notch Therapy, does not use sounds but instead trains the brain to ignore the tinnitus. If you purchase Miracle-Ear hearing aids, you’ll work with a hearing care professional to calibrate these settings until you find a solution that gives you relief. You’ll also be able to make adjustments using the Miracle-Ear app.
If you think you have tinnitus, book an appointment to see a hearing care professional (HCP). They will ask specific questions to better understand your symptoms and perform an exam, including checking your ears for wax or fluid buildup. No matter the cause of your tinnitus, your HCP will work with you to find the best hearing aids and programming options to manage your symptoms.
Adjusting to hearing aids will differ from person to person, depending on the severity of your symptoms and your unique hearing. Remember that hearing aids aren’t quite like glasses, which you can put on and immediately see better.
Hearing is a function in which your brain is heavily involved, and your brain will need to adjust to the changes, which might take several weeks. As you work with your HCP, your hearing aids can be adjusted to find the settings that are most comfortable and effective for you.