Despite the widespread prevalence of tinnitus—a ringing in the ears that affects about 20 percent of the adult population in Reno—and decades of research, there is still a lot of mystery surrounding this common affliction.
What’s so Hard About Finding a Cure, Anyway?
Reports of tinnitus go back as far as 1600 BC, so it really is an age-old problem! Literally. Yet, scientists remain in the dark about the exact causes behind tinnitus, and haven’t made much progress in finding a cure, either.
Tinnitus is the sensation of a phantom noise in the ears. Most people describe it as a ringing sound, but it can take many other forms, as well; patients report buzzing, humming, roaring, whooshing, clicking, hissing and more. It is more common in older adults, but can affect people of all ages. One thing to note: tinnitus is a symptom, not an actual disease. There are a wide variety of causes—over 200 different conditions have been linked to tinnitus, in fact—including disease, trauma and side effects of certain drugs. Tinnitus affects some 50 million Americans and it is theorized that about 30 percent of the global population will experience tinnitus at some point in their lives.
Finding a cure has proven elusive because it’s hard to even quantify tinnitus given the lack of any sort of tool to measure its effects. Doctors must instead rely on the individual’s personal account of the severity of their symptoms, making an actual diagnosis problematic.
Another thing hampering their efforts is the fact that not everybody develops tinnitus even when exposed to the same risk factors. Hearing loss and noise exposure are the most common causes of tinnitus, but not everybody with hearing loss has tinnitus, and not everybody with tinnitus has hearing loss. And those who do suffer from tinnitus report widely varying impacts. Many describe it as an intermittent nuisance that has no real impact on their lives, but a small group find it so bothersome they are unable to function normally. These patients often report anxiety, depression and sleeplessness. Suicide rates for people experiencing debilitating tinnitus are higher than the general population’s. With so much variance, it’s extremely difficult to even know where to begin trying to come up with a cure.
It’s believed that tinnitus is the result of a complex set of processes taking place in different regions of the brain. This makes it hard for pharmaceutical companies to determine which area of the brain to target when developing new drugs. There have been some promising breakthroughs during drug trials, but not a single medication has led to consistent, long-term improvement. Ironically, some of the test subjects who were given placebos during the trial period reported similar improvements in their tinnitus symptoms. Researchers are going to have to develop a better understanding of the mechanics of tinnitus instead of relying on theories, as they so often do today. One encouraging sign is the increasing number of collaborations between doctors, patients and academic researchers. Working together is a good bet for a quicker solution.
Treatment Strategies for Tinnitus
Despite the lack of a cure, there are plenty of ways to manage tinnitus. The goal is to habituate to it; this will cause your brain to assign it less importance, meaning you won’t be as distracted by the ringing in your ears. Tinnitus sound therapy, counseling, meditation and relaxation exercises can all help you learn to manage your symptoms. Sometimes, a medical solution for an underlying disease can put a stop to tinnitus, as can treating hearing loss by wearing hearing aids.
If you’re experiencing a ringing or other sensation in your ears, schedule a consultation with a Reno audiologist.