Ringing in the New (and Old) Ear

Tinnitus is more prevalent in those over age 55

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By RANDAL C. HILL

One day it happens. You know you hear a constant noise. It may be anything from a low buzz to a ringing or a whistle – even the sounds of chirping crickets. But wait. It’s winter and crickets shouldn’t be chirping.

If this describes you, you may be one of over 50 million Americans who suffers from tinnitus. (Of Latin origin, the word means “to ring or tinkle.”) Almost everyone experiences the ring of tinnitus at some point in their life, but if it lasts more than six months, it is considered chronic.

This irritating adversary can affect your quality of life and may be responsible for fatigue, stress, sleep problems, concentration issues, memory problems, depression, anxiety and irritability.

Men and smokers have a higher risk for the condition. Fortunately, tinnitus usually isn’t a sign of something serious, but that doesn’t stop it from being annoying.

Tinnitus is often a symptom of an underlying condition. Some common tinnitus culprits include age-related hearing loss, earwax blockage, inner-ear nerve damage from exposure to loud noises, middle ear problems like tumors or infections, TMJ (temporomandibular joint dysfunction), and injuries to the brain’s hearing center. Stress, anxiety, depression and lack of sleep may also cause this sensory disturbance.

Sometimes the noise abates when you stop taking certain medications such as diuretics, cancer or quinine medications, antibiotics, antidepressants, aspirin, and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

In rare cases, a blood vessel disorder may be to blame, which could manifest itself through atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), high blood pressure, turbulent blood flow an malformed capillaries.

Tinnitus that accompanies hearing loss or dizziness could signal Meniere’s disease.

In many cases, the exact cause is never discovered. Nevertheless, it’s important to see a doctor and try to identify the cause, which may be treatable.

Some common-sense precautions may help prevent certain types of tinnitus: using hearing protection when around loud noises, turning down high-volume music, maintaining cardiovascular health through regular exercise, following a healthy diet, and treating any underlying depression, stress or sleep disorders.

It’s good to know that tinnitus often becomes less noticeable and more manageable in the long run. Most people who are diagnosed learn to ignore the sounds over time; some use devices to mask the hums. Other therapies are being evaluated through various clinical trials.

No single approach seems to work for everyone, so you may need to experiment with various techniques before finding what works best for you.

For more information, visit the American Tinnitus Association at www.ata.org. If you want to participate in a research study, go to www.clincaltrials.gov and enter the search term “tinnitus.”

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