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About one in every ten adults wakes up each morning to a ringing in their ears that has nothing to do with their alarm clock.
Tinnitus is a chronic ringing in the ears thought to be caused by damaged cells in the cochlea, or inner ear. These malfunctioning cells send “sound signals” to the brain of the tinnitus sufferer, even when no sound is present.
Imagine spending each day trying to concentrate, work, talk, eat and then sleep with a buzzing, ringing or chirping tone sounding in your ears. Perhaps you are one of those one in ten who doesn’t have to imagine this.
If so, know that there is hope. Recent developments in treatment show great promise for controlling tinnitus and the effect it has on your emotional and physical well-being.
What causes tinnitus?
Anything that does damage to the inner ear can be the root cause of tinnitus. Some of these causes are out of our control, while some are environmental, medical or drug related.
Here are just a few:
- Prolonged exposure to loud noise. This could be job-related, as it is for pilots, rock musicians and street repair workers. It could also be related to lifestyle. People who work with chain saws, guns or other loud devices, or constantly listen to loud music through headphones, can develop tinnitus.
- Aspirin in high doses can cause tinnitus. So can some antibiotics and cancer medications. Some antidepressants can worsen the symptoms.
- Earwax blockage. Earwax protects your ear canal by trapping dirt. When too much wax builds up, it is hard to wash away and causes irritation to the inner ear.
- Age-related hearing loss. Known as presbycusis, the slowly progressing sensorineural hearing loss that often starts in our 60s is highly associated with tinnitus.
- Meniere’s disease. This is an inner ear disorder thought to be caused by an abnormal buildup of fluid in the inner ear.
- Head or neck injuries. Included in this category is “texting neck,” the neck or spinal damage that comes from constantly looking down at a screen for long periods of time.
- Acoustic neuroma. This benign (non-cancerous) tumor develops on the cranial nerve that connects the brain and inner ear.
- Electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Recent research points to cell phone and microwave frequencies as culprits in the disruption of signals between the brain and inner ear that leads to tinnitus.
Exciting new possibilities for tinnitus relief
Regardless of the cause, once you have tinnitus it is unlikely that the “ringing in the ears” will go away completely.
For years, the best options for dealing with the constant ringing have been antidepressants to help with sleep, as well as treating any underlying causes such as high blood pressure or changing medications that could be the problem.
But in 2014, an exciting new therapy received FDA approval, and it is changing lives.
Just ask Nick Stein.
Nick had lived with the ringing and buzzing for years and had tried just about everything. “I tried masking, including having to have a fan on when I went to sleep, or having a machine that makes sounds, like the sound of rain or a burbling brook.”
Turns out he was on the right track.
While a patient at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, Nick got a chance to try the Levo System.
According to Dr. Yu-tung Wong of Cedars Sinai, the Levo System trains the brain to ignore the ringing of tinnitus.
“It’s very difficult to say you are going to be able to make the sound disappear completely. What you’re trying to do … is make the sound more tolerable.”
The Levo System mimics the sound of a patient’s tinnitus. The patient listens to the sound on an i-pod while sleeping, for a period of ninety nights, non-stop. In this way, the brain becomes more accustomed to the sound.
Dr. Wong explains: “At nighttime when you’re sleeping, your brain is more plastic. It’s more receptive to these kinds of changes.”
For Nick Stein, the results have been life-changing.
“My mood has improved. My focus has improved.”
He believes his tinnitus has been reduced by fifty percent, and he can now go for days and hardly notice the sound.
- Tinnitus and cell phones: the role of electromagnetic radiofrequency radiation — Brazilian Journal of Otorhinolaryngology
- Tinnitus — Mayo Clinic
- Association of Tinnitus and Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity: Hints for a Shared Pathophysiology? — PLoS One
- Prevalence, Severity, Exposures, and Treatment Patterns of Tinnitus in the United States — JAMA Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery