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If you live right next to a train station or had construction work near your bedroom window even for a brief amount of time, environmental noise is a problem you’re all too familiar with. Excessive noise, or noise pollution, includes high-volume, generally unwanted sounds that typically occur in urban areas caused by machine work, alarms or tight traffic. The phenomenon received a lot of attention as a contributing factor to many health issues – partly due to the direct impact of the sheer sound volume on one’s hearing ability (or loss, to be precise), and partly due to the stress created by living in such an environment, resulting in all kinds of health complications and sleep disturbances.
This issue was recognized by authorities, so much so that space planning is required to predict the possibilities of loud ringing, clicking, thudding and racket, and strategically avoid combining such situations with areas designed for living. But what happens when the turbulence isn’t coming from the outside of your window, or even your room?
Constant noise is what many people with tinnitus experience on a daily basis. Although sometimes indirectly caused by the external noise pollution, the difference here is that it comes from their heads, not from outside. It makes it a bigger challenge to deal with, and creates struggles in many scenarios – people with tinnitus live with this ringing in their heads as long as it lasts and it often significantly disrupts their daily lives and makes it almost impossible to fall asleep. Of course, not all cases are as dramatic, but persistent issues of this sort can push a person to a certain edge. People who suffer from tinnitus report higher incidence rates of some mental conditions, sleep problems, and an overall decreased quality of life.
Luckily, this doesn’t always have to be the case, as many treatments have been tried out and proved very efficient when dealing with tinnitus. But before we get into that, lets first cover what this noise is and why it appears in some of us.
What is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is a symptom commonly described as roaring, ringing, clicking or buzzing in an individual’s ears. It can include high or low pitched noises and vary in volume from very quiet to loud in both or just one of the person’s ears. More than 10% of the population in the US alone experience this symptom.
Based on whether only the patient can hear the ringing (most commonly the case) or a doctor can notice it too, tinnitus can be subjective or objective. It is often a symptom of the following medical conditions:
- Ear injury or sinus infection.
- Central nervous system disorder.
- Age-related hearing loss – tinnitus is often its first warning sign.
- Noise-related hearing loss. People who work in factories, construction or even in music are frequently exposed to loud sounds which, over time, damage the sensory cells that transmit the sound to their brain and result in loss of hearing.
- Exposure to bomb explosions. This is why tinnitus is the leading issue reported by war veterans.
- Hormonal changes (especially in women).
- Tumors and abnormalities in one’s brain structure can cause rhythmic pulsing in the ears, also known as the pulsatile tinnitus. This type of tinnitus is very rare.
- Thyroid problems.
- Diseases of the heart or blood vessels in the head or neck can cause tinnitus that is detectable by the stethoscope if the doctor checks for it in those areas.
- Ménière’s disease – an inner ear disorder that causes severe dizziness (also known as vertigo) in the patient, pain or pressure usually on one ear, hearing loss and tinnitus.
- Medication. Tinnitus can also be a side effect of over 200 different pills when you abruptly stop or first start taking them.
Although ringing in the ears is regularly a sign that something is wrong in one’s body, it seldom represents some serious condition without the simultaneous presence of other, more alarming symptoms as well. This issue often happens for no detectable reason and may go away on its own. However, when persistent, tinnitus can be followed by a wide array of comorbid issues and contribute to developing of memory problems, depression, anxiety, poor concentration, excessive sleepiness and more. For instance, insomnia is reported in over 76% of the patients with tinnitus. As a result, over one-fifth of all people experiencing this issue need clinical intervention for their tinnitus or a comorbid condition if there is one.
Why Does This Noise Appear?
Like all sounds, you will hear tinnitus in your ears, while the real action takes place in the brain. There still isn’t a clear consensus on what exactly causes this sensation, as there is no actual sound out there for your ear to experience; your brain is likely tricking your ears in a similar way that you continue to feel pain after a broken bone has healed, known as the chronic pain syndrome. The fact that some people who experience this phenomenon also experience heightened sensitivity to sound suggests that tinnitus causes your sensory cells to work harder due to their natural loss that occurs when you age or in some other scenarios mentioned above.
Tinnitus may also happen due to some abnormality in neural circuits interaction, as the ones meant to control our hearing ability are closely connected to some other parts of our brains.
What to Do if You Experience This Issue?
As in almost all other medical situations, the first thing to do if you think you have this problem would be to reach out to a doctor. They will perform a physical exam, take your medical history, typically including your age, current state of health, other present conditions and any medications you might be using (this includes pills that you recently stopped taking, too). If a cause of tinnitus still isn’t apparent, your doctor might send you to an otolaryngologist, or ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT for short), who will perform a more detailed physical exam. This test will determine whether your hearing is impaired along with the presence of your tinnitus and eventually pinpoint the source of your difficulties.
Treatment Options for Managing Tinnitus and Better Sleep
Some people find that their tinnitus not only continues but gets even worse, noticeably affecting their focus and sleep and often decreasing their hearing ability further. While no cure for this symptom has been discovered, treatment options are versatile with the mutual goal of better coping with this nuisance and achieving sound sleep despite of it. A combination of the following methods is not rare:
- Hearing aids, when correctly set up, are a good way of shifting the focus from the clicking or ringing you hear in your ears to the outside noises you’re surrounded by. Needless to say, they’re also beneficial for better communication and merely help keep you present and more alert to non-visual cues, phone ringing or the sound of cars passing by.
- Counseling is an excellent way to get educated on your particular problem. When you understand what is happening in your body and what causes it, it becomes easier to deal with the discomfort it brings into your life. You may not only learn what tinnitus is but also how to accept that it’s there without feeling burdened the entire time.
- Tabletop sound generators are used to help you relax and fall asleep more efficiently through a program that plays soothing, calming sounds or melodies. Rain falling, ocean waves, birds chirping or waterfall sounds are just some of the samples commonly used for this purpose.
- Wearable sound generators work the same way as the tabletops, with the difference of fitting into your ear. You may want the sounds masking your tinnitus to overlap just a bit louder, or cover it up entirely to immerse you in the relaxed background tones and help you forget all about your problems.
- Cochlear implants may be used by people who have damaged inner ear as well as very loud tinnitus. These implants work by stimulating your auditory nerves via electric signals and help deliver the outside noises that would be otherwise unavailable in such conditions, shifting the focus away from the tinnitus and helping stimulate the neural circuits in one’s brain.
- Acoustic neural stimulation uses music to overpower loud tinnitus. This new technique works through headphones the size of one’s palm to send acoustic signals right up to the auditory nerves. This method is becoming increasingly popular among patients with tinnitus.
- Some medications for depression and anxiety, as well as sleep meds, are occasionally prescribed to lift your mood and help quicken your sleep onset. You should discuss this with your doctor, especially if you are already taking some other pills.
- Other drugs can be found over-the-counter or even on the internet, but this option is the worst of all. Not only is it dangerous to single-handedly treat any issue with medications, but taking the wrong drugs or combining them without professional supervision can lead to catastrophic consequences, and very quickly at that. With so many other options available, it would be plain irresponsible to take this route instead.
That being said, you can prevent your tinnitus from worsening or even occurring in the first place by taking measures like limiting your exposure to loud noises, turning the volume down on your earphones or wearing plugs when necessary. Remember not to neglect other aspects of your health while trying to tackle the one currently most urgent – replacing one problem with another won’t solve much in the long run. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or merely some proper sleep hygiene, may at least rule out other potential issues you experience when bedtime arrives, if not lessen the buzzing sound that prevents you from getting a satisfying rest.
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Michael is a professional writer based in Boston and someone who has always been fascinated with the mysteries of sleep. When he’s not reading about new sleep studies and working on our news section, you can find him playing video games or visiting local comic book stores.