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The Misery and Mystery of Tinnitus: How Hearing Aids Can Help

By Justin Braver

Tinnitus is most commonly defined as a ringing heard in the ears, where no external sound source is present. The sound can manifest itself in many different forms, such as hissing, whooshing, whistling or even pulsing like a heartbeat. Nearly everyone will experience brief episodes at some point in their lives, perhaps the morning after a rock concert, and over 50 million adult Americans have experienced some form of intermittent or persistent tinnitus One in five of those people contend with bothersome tinnitus to the extent where their quality of life and well-being are compromised. If this sounds like you, then get examined by an otolaryngologist (ENT) as soon as possible.

Tinnitus in itself, is not a disease. It is a symptom of a disease, but not always. When it is possible to associate the tinnitus with other problems identified in the outer-middle-inner ear systems, then the tinnitus is referred to as "secondary". The good news is that it can often be alleviated by treatment of its underlying cause. Unfortunately, the majority of cases are classified as "primary", where there is no clearly identifiable cause or origin. Miserable, mysterious, and frustrating to the afflicted, indeed.

Even stranger are the cases where tinnitus is "objective", which means that the examiner can actually detect and listen to the sound being produced by the patient! The known and theoretically causes for these very rare cases go well beyond the scope of this article, but they do speak to the mysterious nature this vexing condition. The garden-variety tinnitus is "subjective", meaning that only the afflicted can hear the sound. Subjective tinnitus is commonly caused by damage of the cochlear nerves located within the inner ear. This type of nerve damage is usually the result of exposure to loud noise or simply the aging process, but some medications can have ototoxic effects on these delicate nerves. Cochlear nerve damage is the most common culprit for hearing loss as well.

Most people who suffer both tinnitus and hearing loss report a drastic reduction in their tinnitus through the use of hearing aids. Some scientists postulate that the brain compensates for the "missed sounds", deprived to it by a hearing loss. Unable to detect and process the desired and expected environmental sounds, the brain fills the void by producing an undesirable phantom sound. And when proper hearing is restored (or a least significantly improved), the brain ceases to create the annoying tone. Furthermore, when desired environmental sounds are being amplified and blended in, the tinnitus sound will become less prominent in the aural mix. The best way to determine if your tinnitus can be alleviated is to visit a hearing professional for a hearing test. Reduction of tinnitus is merely one of the many reasons to use hearing aids should you determine that your hearing has declined.

Justin Braver is the owner of Zounds Hearing in Monroeville and Zounds Hearing of South Hills. Contact Zounds at (412) 835-7000 to schedule a free hearing examination and consultation.

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