One of the most prevalent conditions affecting Americans today is tinnitus. In fact, more than 50 million people in the U.S. alone have been diagnosed with tinnitus, a term used for hearing a sound (or sounds) in your head when no sound exists. These phantom sounds are usually annoying, the way that radio static or high-pitched emergency signals are bothersome. About 12 million Americans are disturbed enough to seek medical help for the ringing in their ears; 2 million are literally disabled by their tinnitus, unable to work, sleep, or function normally.
Tinnitus affects patients differently. Some notice changes in cognitive abilities, equilibrium, and ability to sleep soundly. Although patients do not typically experience pain with tinnitus, like pain syndromes, there is a feeling of helplessness associated with the condition. This often leads to secondary medical problems, such as depression, anxiety, and exacerbated stress levels.
Obviously, these primary and secondary conditions can impact one’s personal and professional relationships and one’s ability work—even inside the home.
For some, the ringing, whooshing, and/or buzzing, which can occur in one or both ears, is caused by an event. The actor William Shatner has suffered from tinnitus since an explosion on the set of Star Trek occurred decades ago. He is now a spokesperson for the American Tinnitus Association (ATA), helping to raise awareness of the disease and funding for research.
Shatner and others (including me) are particularly concerned for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Respected tinnitus researcher Richard Salvi, Ph.D., of the University of Buffalo says, “As many as 50 percent of combat soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan who come back have tinnitus. In 2010, the Veterans Administration paid out more than $1 billion for tinnitus disability claims alone. It’s become a huge problem for military and VA hospitals.” (http://www.buffalo.edu/news/12768)
You don’t have to go to war or be around an explosion, though. Some individuals develop tinnitus for no apparent reason. Others will experience it after an ear infection, especially a severe one. Tinnitus is very prevalent in younger people. In fact, 75% of people aged 18 to 30 experience tinnitus from listening to very loud music at live venues or through headphones. (Holmes S, Padgham N. Journal of Clinical Nursing 2009; 18(21): 2927.)
To date, there is no cure for tinnitus, no pill to take, although there are some treatments which provide relief. I will discuss these options and an exciting new treatment in my next blog.