Tinnitus/Ringing in the Ears

Almost everyone experiences ringing in the ears at some time or another. But if your child is among the more than 50 million Americans who have a condition called tinnitus, ear and head sounds are ongoing symptoms that can range from being mildly annoying to virtually incapacitating. Fortunately, there’s much that can be done to help.

What is Tinnitus?

People with tinnitus experience ringing or other head noises that are not produced by an external source. This disorder can occur in one or both ears, range in pitch from a low roar to a high squeal, and be steady or intermittent. Continuous tinnitus can be annoying and distracting, and in severe cases it can cause psychological distress and interfere with your child’s ability to lead a normal life.

Tinnitus is more common than you might imagine. The American Tinnitus Association estimates that:

  • Over 50 million Americans have tinnitus problems to some degree
  • Approximately 12 million people have symptoms severe enough to seek medical care
  • About two million people have trouble sleeping or concentrating due to severe tinnitus

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Symptoms of Tinnitus

The symptoms of tinnitus can vary widely from one person to the next. It can affect one or both ears or be perceived as noise “inside the head.” People who suffer from tinnitus describe the noise as ringing, buzzing, humming, hissing, roaring, whistling, chirping, clicking, and other sounds.

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Causes of Tinnitus

Tinnitus is not a disease. It’s a symptom that can be caused by a number of medical conditions. These include:

  • Ear injuries

  • Circulatory system problems

  • Wax build-up in the ear canal – Excess earwax can compromise hearing and make tinnitus seem louder. If your child produces a lot of earwax, ask an audiologist or doctor about having it removed safely by a health professional. Attempts to remove earwax yourself with cotton swabs or other objects can make the condition worse and cause additional damage

  • Ototoxic medications – Certain medications may produce tinnitus as a side effect. Before giving any medication to your child, make sure that your prescribing physician is aware of his or her tinnitus

  • Ear or sinus infections – Many children experience tinnitus along with an ear or sinus infection. Usually, the symptoms gradually go away as the infection heals

  • Jaw misalignment – Misaligned jaw joints – Termed temporomandibular jaw syndrome (TMJ) – can induce tinnitus along with a number of other problems. Dentists who specialize in this condition can provide treatment

  • Cardiovascular disease – A small percentage of tinnitus patients experience rhythmic pulsing sounds, often in time with their heartbeat. This form of tinnitus can result from vascular conditions, such as heart murmurs, hypertension, or hardening of the arteries

  • Head and neck trauma

  • Ménière’s disease – The result of increased pressure in the inner ear, Ménière’s disease may also cause deafness and vertigo

  • Otosclerosis – Characterized by the abnormal growth of bone of the middle ear, otosclerosis prevents structures within the ear from working properly and can cause tinnitus, hearing loss, dizziness, and balance problems

  • Tumors – In rare cases, benign, slow-growing tumors on auditory, vestibular, or facial nerves can cause tinnitus as well as deafness, facial paralysis, and balance problems

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Types of Tinnitus

There are three main types of tinnitus:

  • Spontaneous tinnitus begins suddenly and goes away in a matter of seconds
  • Subjective tinnitus can be heard only by the person affected by the disorder
  • Objective tinnitus can be heard by other people as well as the affected person

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Diagnosing Tinnitus

If your child’s health professional suspects that he or she has tinnitus, any or all of the following may be recommended:

  • A complete medical history and physical exam to evaluate the nature of the tinnitus, the degree of distress it’s causing, associated symptoms, and any factors that may be contributing to the symptoms (such as medications your child is taking or aspects of his or her activities)
  • An audiogram (hearing test administered by an audiologist) to identify hearing loss
  • Additional tests, such as a CT scan or an MRI, may be necessary in some cases

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Treating Tinnitus

The most effective treatment for tinnitus is to eliminate its underlying cause, if there is one. When a definitive cause can’t be identified (which is very common), your child’s audiologist or physician will recommend ways of treating his or her specific tinnitus symptoms.

Some common ways of treating tinnitus include:

  • Hearing Aids – If tinnitus is accompanied by hearing loss, a hearing aid may provide some relief

  • Masking Devices – Many people benefit from electronic devices (resembling hearing aids) that play sounds that are more pleasant than the noise produced by tinnitus. There are also models that combine a hearing aid with a masker

  • Cognitive Therapy – This is a type of counseling that can help your child modify his or her reaction to tinnitus. It is sometimes used in combination with masking or medication to improve results

  • Tinnitus Retraining Therapy – The brain has a natural ability to filter out unwanted noise, such as that produced by computers and refrigerators. With tinnitus retraining therapy, your child would receive one-to-one counseling that helps him or her “teach” the brain how to screen out tinnitus noise

  • Biofeedback – This is a relaxation technique that can help your child manage stress by changing his or her reaction to it. Some people find it helpful in coping with tinnitus.

  • Dental Treatment – If tinnitus is caused by temporomandibular joint (TMJ) syndrome, a problem with the joint in the jaw, specialized dental treatment may help relieve symptoms

  • Cochlear Implants – These electronic devices, implanted in the ear, are primarily used to treat near-deafness. They may also provide some degree of tinnitus relief for people who have significant hearing loss.

  • Lifestyle modifications – Your health profession may advise you to help your child:
    • Avoid exposure to loud sounds and noises
    • Avoid or limit caffeine
    • Get plenty of rest

  • Medications – Many drugs have been studied for treating tinnitus. Thus far, researchers have not found any that provide a high degree of long-lasting relief. For some people, anti-anxiety drugs may help.

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