Tinnitus

As always, consult your doctor if you have any questions about your ears, tinnitus, or your body in general!

Are your ears ringing? Many say it’s because someone is talking about you. Or, it could be because something of something actually affecting you.  It’s called tinnitus (pronounced TINN-a-tus or ti-NIGHT-us).  The word tinnitus has a Latin origin that means “to ring or tinkle” [1].  Tinnitus is relatively common, affecting 50 million Americans.  Most people describe it as a constant ringing in the ears, but it is defined medically as a perception of sound when there is no actual sound present.  Tinnitus can occur occasionally or constantly and the volume of the sounds can fluctuate.  Sometimes sufferers describe tinnitus as a fullness in the ear, that their ear is underwater, or that their ears feel heavy.  Other noises heard include: ringing, buzzing, whooshing, clicking.  This link lists 12 example sounds of tinnitus.

Tinnitus sufferers can hear ringing, buzzing, whooshing and clicking. / Photo available in public domain

What causes it

Tinnitus can sometimes be a symptom of something else wrong in your body.  If the sound is only in one ear, it can be indicative of a brain tumor.  If the sound keeps pace with the heart, called “pulsatile tinnitus,” it could be indicative of an issue with the vascular system.  If tinnitus presents in addition to dizziness, it could be indicative of Meniere’s disease, which is a disorder of the inner ear.  You should be consulting a doctor anyways if you have tinnitus, but you should consult a doctor sooner rather than later if you have any of the symptoms listed above.  

Interestingly, tinnitus does not always stem from the auditory system.  In a study in 1981, 414 people had their auditory nerve removed, and only 40% noticed an improvement in their tinnitus.  This indicates that some cases of tinnitus originate in the brain as opposed to the ear [2]. Tinnitus is often associated with hearing loss but does not cause hearing loss nor is it caused by hearing loss.  Stress, anxiety, and fatigue can worsen tinnitus.

Something touching your ear drum can create tinnitus symptoms, and removing the object can resolve the symptoms of tinnitus.  Ear infections, foreign objects, hair, dirt, and earwax are commonly found in this situation.  Impacted earwax can block your ear canal and can cause tinnitus. Earwax can become impacted when using a q-tip to clean ear wax.  If you do have impacted ear wax, a health care professional can easily help.  

Tinnitus can also be associated with loud noises.  You may have experienced a form of tinnitus temporarily after attending a loud concert.  Tinnitus is the number one disability of veterans due to their experiences with guns and explosions [3]. It can can occur spontaneously as a result of head or neck trauma or barotrauma.  

Tinnitus is the number one disability of veterans due to their experiences with guns and explosions / Photo available via CC0

Tinnitus is listed as a side effect of over 200 prescription and nonprescription medicines like aspirin and cancer treatment [4].  Discuss with your doctor and see if there is an option to change or alter your prescriptions.  

Older, white, non-hispanic males with a history of experiences with loud noises (military, musicians, construction, hunting, etc) are the group of people most commonly diagnosed with tinnitus [1].  People suffering from chronic tinnitus are susceptible to depression, anxiety, irritability, and poor concentration.  

How to manage

Talk to your doctor.  Tinnitus is occasionally a symptom of something more serious, so eliminating the more serious causes can at least dismiss any worry or stress on that matter or get them taken care of.  Though, in most cases, the underlying cause of tinnitus cannot be pinpointed.  But once diagnosed with tinnitus–and after eliminating the scary causes–, there are a variety of options available to you to help alleviate the noise, though, no cure is currently available.

Cognitive behavioral therapy and other types of counseling can help sufferers manage the stress that is often associated with tinnitus.

White noise can help drown out the tinnitus and allow sufferers to concentrate on outside sounds.  Some people who are particularly affected by tinnitus at night when trying to fall asleep may use a fan or a white noise generating app on their smart phone.  

Specialized hearing aids can play white noise and amplify outside sounds.  The combination of the two can be quite effective at helping the tinnitus blend into the background.

Hearing aids may help reduce symptoms of tinnitus / Photo available via CC0

Some medications can provide relief for tinnitus.  Low level anti-anxiety medications help alleviate the anxiety and some have reduced the volume.  A steroid placed in the middle ear in combination with anti-anxiety has shown to be effective [4].  The side effects of the medication treating tinnitus can sometimes be worse than tinnitus itself though, so weigh the options.  Two of the worser ones I found were blurred vision and heart problems [5].  

A therapeutic massage will help tinnitus sufferers in a variety of ways.  First and foremost, massage can help lower the volume of tinnitus sounds and in some cases, can temporarily erase the sounds. There are 4 muscles identified that have referrals which manifest as tinnitus.  A “referral” is typically pain (but in this case, noise) that is felt somewhere else besides its source.  For example, the sternocleidomastoid (a neck muscle) can cause headaches in your forehead, or the back of your skull.  The 4 muscles which could cause tinnitus are the sternocleidomastoid, the masseter, and the medial and lateral pterygoids [6].  In order to find a massage therapist to perform this type of massage, you will want to look for a massage therapist in your area that performs “therapeutic massage.”  Call the therapist first and find out if they have experience with either tinnitus or TMJ disorders and if they can offer a specific massage on the head, neck, and the four muscles which might be the culprit of tinnitus symptoms:  sternocleidomastoid, masseter, and the medial and lateral pterygoids.  If your state allows it, also ask if the therapist has experience with intraoral massage (intraoral massage may be considered illegal, depending on the state you live in).  Hopefully the therapist can provide some temporary relief. A consistent massage routine may allow you to reduce the volume of tinnitus.  

These four muscles can cause tinnitus referrals. / Photos available in the public domain.

Massage, even not a therapeutic massage on those four specific muscles listed above, can also provide a benefit to tinnitus sufferers.  The constant noise can increase stress and anxiety, which in turn may increase the volume.  Massage has many benefits, and reducing stress and anxiety is one of them.  A regular routine of massage can help tinnitus sufferers manage the stress and anxiety caused by tinnitus, with an added bonus of potentially reducing the volume.  

Massage can help alleviate stress and anxiety. / Photo available via CC0

Tinnitus can be a frustrating diagnosis to live with.  I encourage sufferers to seek multiple and varied ways to help manage the symptoms.  I found the American Tinnitus Association and British Tinnitus Association to be an excellent sources of information and tinnitus management solutions when researching this article.

I especially encourage sufferers to partake in a regular massage routine.  Massage practitioners are varied in their skill set and their experience, so if one massage therapist doesn’t work for you, keep looking.  Don’t eliminate massage after one attempt.  Additionally, it may take a few visits before you start to notice a difference, especially if you have had tinnitus for years.  Feel free to show your massage therapist this article, so the therapist knows which muscles you specifically want massaged.  

 


References

[1] “Understanding the Facts.” Understanding the Facts. American Tinnitus Association. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.

[2] House, J. W., and D. E. Brackmann. “Tinnitus: Surgical Treatment.” Ciba Foundation Symposium. 85 (1981): 204-16. PubMed. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.

[3] Management, VHA Media. “Veterans Health Administration.” New Treatment Options for Tinnitus Sufferers. US Department of Veterans Affairs, 24 May 2011. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.

[4] “Understanding Tinnitus.” WebMD. WebMD, LLC. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.

[5] Mayo Clinic Staff Print. “Tinnitus.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 01 Feb. 2016. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.

[6] MyoRehab. “Earaches/Tinnitus (Ringing)/Itch.” The Trigger Point and Referred Pain Guide. Triggerpoints.net. Web. 26 Feb. 2017.


 

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