What Is Tinnitus? Otorhinolaryngologist available for interviews

With the recent news about a potential link between COVID-19 and tinnitus, the medical term for a ringing in the ears, Adam Pearl, MD, chief of Otorhinolaryngology, Bridgeport Hospital, who sees patients with tinnitus on a daily basis, shares information about this condition and ways to protect your hearing.

“People who first experience tinnitus usually think there is something wrong in their house, like an appliance is malfunctioning,” said Dr. Pearl. “Then they leave their house and realize the sound is still with them.”

People describe it as hearing different and sometimes changing sounds like ringing, buzzing, hissing, roaring or even music. Over 50 million people have tinnitus in the United States. The cases range from mild to debilitating with about 20 percent of those cases falling into the bothersome category. A number of clinical studies are in progress but no definitive cure has been identified. However, education and management can greatly enhance the quality of life for those suffering.

Searching for a cause

“Tinnitus is the sound you have heard your whole life," said Dr. Pearl. "Your brain has tuned it out, like your heart beat or breath. You were introduced to it as a child when you held a seashell to your ear and heard the ‘ocean’.”

An evaluation for tinnitus typically revolves around identifying the cause and looking for options to push the sound back into the periphery. “We generally evaluate people once the tinnitus has been around for a few months, sooner if someone is very troubled by it.”

Dr. Pearl describes a physical exam where he looks for tinnitus causes such as earwax, fluid that has built up behind the eardrum, an ear infection or hearing loss. Additionally certain medications such as aspirin overuse can be the culprit.

Hearing loss is another major culprit for tinnitus. As external auditory stimulation is decreased the volume on tinnitus can increase. In some cases, in which patients have unilateral tinnitus, a workup must be performed to rule out the presence of a rare slow growing non-cancerous tumor pushing on the hearing nerve.

Management

“There is no cure for tinnitus because the sound has always been there,” said Dr. Pearl. “However, beyond addressing certain causes, there are effective ways to manage the condition with behavior modification.”

Dr. Pearl recommends sound therapy including a tinnitus masking device, and falling to sleep with apps that play soothing sounds or white noise. He also suggests a diet that reduces caffeine, alcohol and salt. Acupuncture can be another option. If someone has hearing loss, wearing a hearing aid is beneficial. If hearing is normal, they can wear a tinnitus masking device.

“Some people have had success with counseling,” said Dr. Pearl. “Many of our lives have been turned upside down during the pandemic. For example, stress and sleep deprivation play a huge role in how we react to tinnitus. Like chronic pain, reframing our relationship with it and taking the focus off of the tinnitus can offer a lot of relief.”

Hearing health

Dr. Pearl’s hearing health tips include:

  • Avoid inserting cotton swabs in the hole of your ear because it could push the wax in and damage the ear drum which can cause permanent hearing loss and tinnitus. Ear wax has a natural protective effect and you need some of it.
  • To prepare for the return of concerts, make sure you have ear plugs on hand to protect your ears from loud noises.
  • When playing music at home, the music should be at a level where you can still have a conversation
  • Ear buds should be wiped down with alcohol on a regular basis