Tinnitus is an oft-misunderstood ailment. There aren't really any traditional "signs" of tinnitus -- it's either there, or it isn't. Tinnitus is defined as any sound that's not present in the environment, but is still perceived in the auditory system. It often manifests as a humming, ringing, buzzing, clicking, “crickets,” or a rumbling noise. One might also notice a "fullness" or feeling of pressure in the ear.
No matter how it manifests, tinnitus is frequently a sign of hearing loss. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to manage and prevent hearing loss and tinnitus.
Other Hearing Loss Symptoms
Besides the physical symptoms of tinnitus, there are some common signs that one might notice that could indicate hearing loss:
- Situational difficulties, such as trouble with background noise
- Turning up the volume on the TV or radio
- Asking people to repeat themselves
- Social withdrawal, such as not going to theaters, parties, or events
- Increased isolation because of the effort involved in listening with hearing loss and/or tinnitus
It's important to recognize and pay attention to these signs, not only because of the social consequences of hearing loss, but because physical changes can occur with long-term sound deprivation from hearing loss. Hearing cells in the ear and along the auditory pathway into the brain need to be stimulated in order to remain healthy and useable. Cells that are not stimulated may die off, making management of tinnitus and hearing loss more difficult. It's best to do something about tinnitus and hearing loss early, to keep the hearing cells as stimulated and healthy as possible.
Tinnitus tends to become more noticeable when the sufferer is in a quiet environment. It may also occur when the patient is exposed to a loud noise -- the person may have a ringing or "fullness" in the ears immediately after the noise fades. Noise exposure can create a "threshold shift" in the hearing.
These threshold shifts might be temporary, and last a couple of hours or a few days, or they may be permanent. Even if they are temporary, it's important to be aware of them. Think of the cells in your ear as being like a lawn. If you walk across your lawn once, it might not do much permanent damage; but frequent exposure to walking (noise) and it will become a dead pathway of grass that will never recover. Repeated noise exposure has a similar effect on your hearing. While experiencing a short-term ringing in the ears after a one-time or unexpected exposure to a loud noise is fairly common, it's important to get it checked if it becomes more frequent or does not get better.
What You Can Do
The most important step you can take in preventing tinnitus is to wear hearing protection when you expect to be exposed to loud noise.
If you notice a ringing in your ears or other sign of hearing loss, come in for a baseline hearing test. If you've been previously diagnosed with tinnitus or hearing loss, and you've noticed a change, schedule a re-evaluation. A history of noise exposure, whether work-related or recreationally-related, is also a good reason to get your hearing checked out. Tinnitus that pulses, like your heartbeat, tinnitus that occurs on only one side, and tinnitus that occurs with symptoms of hearing fluctuations, ear pressure, and/or dizziness should always be investigated by an audiologist and ENT physician.
In many cases, hearing aids or ear level masking devices can help with hearing loss and tinnitus and make it more manageable. If you have questions or want to consult with a skilled audiologist about your tinnitus or hearing loss, contact Virginia ENT to request an appointment.