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Understanding and Finding Relief From Tinnitus


By Ann Perreau, Ph.D., CCC-A, Augustana College Center for Speech, Language, and Hearing

Overview of tinnitus

Tinnitus is a chronic condition affecting more than 50 million Americans. Tinnitus is described as the perception of sound in one or both ears, or in the head, when there is no external sound present. Many people experience tinnitus as a ringing, buzzing, roaring, or whooshing sound. It is more common among individuals with hearing loss, but can be experienced if you have normal hearing.

How we hear, causes, and effects of tinnitus
First, it is helpful to know about how the ear works. When you hear sound, the sound waves travel through the air and are collected by the outer ear. The vibrations pass through the middle ear and are transmitted to the inner ear (cochlea) and converted into nerve pulses. The auditory nerve then carries these pulses up to your brain, where the sound is coded. Your brain sorts out what is important and often ignores meaningless sounds, and it can learn to do the same with the internal sound of tinnitus. In the case of tinnitus, the nerve sends more signals to the brain, which is why the brain hears tinnitus rather than silence. In the case of hearing loss, fewer signals are sent to the brain because some fibers are damaged and cannot transmit the pulses.

There are many causes of tinnitus, but it is often caused by damage to the hearing system and is associated with aging and excessive noise exposure. Tinnitus can be very distressing and impact daily life, causing social and work problems. The most common areas influenced by tinnitus are sleep, thoughts and emotions (e.g., depression and anxiety), communication, and concentration or attention.

Treatments for tinnitus
Currently, there are no widely accepted cures for tinnitus. Fortunately, there are many excellent treatment options that are effective in relieving tinnitus:

  • Counseling — group or individual counseling to learn more about tinnitus and how to change your reactions to it
  • Low-level background sounds from a TV, radio, CD player, fan, or smartphone app
  • Wearable noise generators — a device that creates masking sounds and is worn like a hearing aid
  • Hearing aids — For those with hearing loss, hearing aids improve hearing sounds and speech, and can mask the tinnitus sound

To learn more about tinnitus, you can join one of our group educational sessions held once a month at Augustana College Center for Speech, Language, and Hearing. In addition, check out the American Tinnitus Association website at www.ata.org, which has valuable information on tinnitus.

Ann Perreau, Ph.D., CCC-A Associate Professor and Audiology Clinic Coordinator Augustana College Center for Speech, Language, and Hearing — annperreau@augustana.edu — 319-794-8935 — www.augustana.edu/clinic — 851 34th Street, Rock Island, IL, 61201.