As baby boomers continue to age, hearing loss and its "sister" condition tinnitus, or "ringing in the ears," are becoming more prevalent.
Partly due to occupational hazards where workers are subjected to constant loud noise, or years of "binge" listening to loud music, tinnitus affects almost everyone at least occasionally. According to the American Tinnitus Association, ata.org, tinnitus affects 1 in 10 Americans, with an estimated 430,000 in Chicago who experience it from time to time.
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But for some people, tinnitus is a persistent condition that can make day-to-day life miserable. Chronic tinnitus sufferers often have difficulty concentrating, falling asleep and communicating. They may feel stressed, irritable, anxious or depressed. Musicians, factory workers, military personnel, hunters, construction workers, people listening to their iPods too loud -- are all at risk.
Tinnitus -- the perception of sound when no external sound is present -- may be caused by a number of things, including use of certain medications, ear wax, circulatory problems, dental issues or head trauma. However the most common cause is noise damage to the auditory system caused by exposure to loud sounds such as amplified music, machinery, fireworks, guns firing or other similar sounds. Any sound that is louder than busy city traffic, or a lawn mower for example, has the potential to cause both hearing loss and tinnitus.
Although there is no definitive cure, there are several effective treatments. Research also is ongoing.
It's very important to arrange a consultation and examination with a medical professional as soon as possible to determine if there is a treatable medical condition causing the tinnitus.
At the audiologist's office, ear wax is removed if necessary. Then the patient completes a tinnitus questionnaire to evaluate severity. A hearing test helps to assess hearing loss.
In general, there are more treatments available now, including sound therapy, which has been shown to be highly effective. For patients who have hearing loss along with tinnitus, a hearing aid and a tinnitus masker can provide relief. A "masker" is a sound that helps to mask, or cover up, the perceived tinnitus sound.
Typical maskers include white noise generators, or tabletop machines that play ocean sounds for example. A new type of customized sound therapy is the handheld Serenade device. It is individually programmed for each patient and plays treatment sounds that are matched to that person's unique tinnitus.
There are four different soundtracks to choose from, two of which provide a special type of amplitude modulated tone that was originally developed at the University of California, Irvine. Unlike other maskers, these tones are designed to be played at a very soft, low volume like background noise, rather than being louder than the patient's tinnitus.
Tinnitus is complex because it is the perception of the sound; it has a neurological component, but also a perceptual, or psychological component -- patients have an emotional response to it. Why tinnitus is so disturbing is because of the perception of the sound.
In general, sound therapy works by habituation, which means changing the perception of tinnitus over time. The goal is to change the person's perception of his tinnitus gradually so that it becomes more of a neutral sound -- it exists like background noise, as if it's far away. Although some people do feel relief very quickly, it can take between six months to a year for the therapy to take effect.
• Dr. Lata Jain has been practicing audiology in the Chicago area for more than 12 years and specializes in tinnitus treatment and balance and dizziness therapy.