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Hearing Problems In Seniors: Tinnitus

Learn what to do about tinnitus, a phantom sound that only exists inside your head.

By Chris Iliades, MD

The first thing you need to know about tinnitus, that ringing in your ears, is that it is not a disease—it is only a symptom. The next thing you need to know is that even though it’s a very common symptom, in many ways it remains a medical mystery.

A recent review of the causes, symptoms and treatments of tinnitus in the Journal of Clinical Neurology states that in about 40 percent of cases no cause can be found, and that of all the medications used for tinnitus, only a tranquilizer works better than a sugar pill (a placebo).

"Tinnitus represents one of the most common and distressing otologic problems, and it causes various somatic and psychological disorders that interfere with the quality of life." Journal of Clinical Neurology

Hearing Problems In Seniors: Symptoms and Causes of Tinnitus

Tinnitus is usually described as ringing in the ears, but it may also be described as cicadas, crickets, wind, escaping steam, or even grinding steel. For about three out of four people with tinnitus, the sounds in their ears become something they learn to live with, but for others tinnitus is a source of anxiety, insomnia and disability.

When it comes to seniors and hearing, we don’t exactly know how tinnitus occurs. Theories include nerve cell damage in the inner ear and changes in brain pathways. We do know some of the common causes:

     
  • Age. The type of hearing loss that goes along with age is usually accompanied by tinnitus.
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  • Noise. In younger adults with tinnitus the cause can often be traced to noise exposure.
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  • Medications. Aspirin is a common cause of ringing in your ears, but tinnitus can also be caused by some antibiotics. In fact, there are hundreds of medications that may cause tinnitus.
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  • Health issues. Many medical problems including allergies, blood pressure, neck injuries, and tumors can be associated with tinnitus.
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  • Unknown. Almost half of all tinnitus has no known cause.
       

Hearing Problems In Seniors: Treatments for Tinnitus

If your tinnitus is caused by a medication or a medical condition, you might be able to be relieved of that ringing in your ears. However, for the other causes of tinnitus there is no cure.
But that doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do about it. Here are some treatments that may help:

     
  • Talk therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of counseling that teaches you how to cope with tinnitus (among many other conditions) in new ways and replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts. Counseling may also involve learning about relaxation and stress reduction.
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  • Sound therapy. This type of treatment involves using pleasant sounds like a waterfall or a gurgling brook as background noise to mask the sound of your tinnitus. Sound therapy can be as simple as a radio at your bedside.
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  • Tinnitus retraining therapy. This is a type of therapy that combines counseling and sound therapy. It can take up to 18 months and requires working with a trained hearing professional.
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  • Hearing aid. If you have tinnitus along with significant hearing loss, a hearing aid may help by increasing your ability to hear the sounds around you, which will mask the sound of the tinnitus.


There are some other things you can do to help yourself if you have tinnitus:

     
  • Always start with a good medical evaluation. Your doctor may refer you to an audiologist or an ear, nose and throat specialist.
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  • Avoid any loud noise exposure.
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  • Reduce stress by getting enough sleep and exercising regularly.
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  • Avoid stimulants that may aggravate tinnitus like caffeine and nicotine.
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  • Decrease your salt intake.
       

Hearing Problems In Seniors: Special Cautions for Caregivers

If you are a caregiver for someone who suddenly develops tinnitus, or if their tinnitus suddenly gets worse, you need to get them to the doctor. It could be something as simple as a wax buildup or it could be a sign of a treatable medical condition like high blood pressure. In rare cases, tinnitus can be caused by a tumor growing on the main hearing nerve. If symptoms like fluctuating hearing loss, sudden change in hearing, dizziness or unsteadiness accompany tinnitus, it is more likely that the tinnitus is being caused by a treatable medical condition.