Tinnitus or ringing of the ears is a very common condition where almost everyone would have experienced it at one point in life. Tinnitus is the perception of sound (which is only heard by the affected individual) without an audible external sound (no one else can hear it). It can take many forms. Some perceive it as the common high pitched steady ringing, buzzing, clicking, roaring, whooshing, humming, or more. The volume of tinnitus can fluctuate, and it can be continuous, intermittent, or pulsatile. From a personal point of view, when my ears start ringing, every other sound tends to be “pushed” to the background and the ringing can be deafening. It can take a while before it goes away. Personally, I have adapted to my tinnitus and am able to go about my daily routines as normal. However, for a smaller group of those affected, their tinnitus can be severely debilitating to the point where they cannot function and are desperately seeking an effective treatment method.
Globally, approximately 10-15% of the world’s population are affected and in the United States, there is an estimated 50 million individuals who suffer from tinnitus. This is not limited to adults alone, but children and adolescents are affected as well. The risk factors for tinnitus are:
- increasing age
- cardiovascular disease
- thyroid disease
- temporomandibular join disorders
- head and neck injuries
- glomus tumors
- consumption of ototoxic medication
- and more.
Tinnitus is a symptom and not a disease. Unfortunately for us, there are so many underlying disorders that can potentially cause tinnitus. One of the most important risk factor for tinnitus is exposure to loud noises.
Loud Noises and Ear Damage
Due to the age of modernization, there are now earpieces, portable phones that can be used to play games and music, portable music players, tablets and so much more that increases the amount of sound we are exposed to. Besides entertainment, it has also become the norm to hear construction sounds while work is being done. There are also more work hazards as individuals with jobs such as construction workers, freight train workers, and woodcutters are being exposed to loud noises every day. These sounds can be harmful especially when they are too loud as it can damage sensitive structures in our inner ear which leads to noise induced hearing loss (NIHL).
Many of those affected are unaware as most cases are gradual and by the time they notice that their hearing is affected, it is already too late. Some of the symptoms of NIHL are:
- trouble understanding others when they talk
- unable to hear through the phone
- noticing yourself starting to lip read when others are talking to you
Sounds are measured in units called decibels. We are normally exposed to sounds less than 75 decibels but repeated exposure to sounds above 85 decibels can be damaging and lead to NIHL. For example:
- a normal conversation – 60 decibels
- a music player at maximum volume – 105 decibels
- Sirens – 120 decibels
- Firecrackers and firearms – 150 decibels
Besides the loudness of the sound you are exposed to, other factors such as your distance from the source and length you are exposed to are also deciding factors for the health of your hearing.
Effects of Exposure to Loud Noises
If you are exposed to loud noises for a long duration, you will gradually start to lose your hearing. As the change is gradual, many are unaware of the signs of hearing loss until it is severe. Sounds gradually become more muffled and once combined with aging, the hearing loss can be severe enough that you may need a hearing aid. NIHL can also be caused by bursts of loud noises such as a gun going off or explosions that may rupture your eardrum and damage the tiny bones in your ear. Unfortunately, this damage is often immediate and permanent.
One of the most pronounced consequence after exposure to loud noises besides hearing loss is tinnitus. In preliminary stages, it may subside but with age, it can become constant and continuous. Hearing loss and tinnitus can occur either in one or both ears.
Prevention of NIHL
Is there anything you can do to prevent noise induced hearing loss? The answer is YES! There is plenty you can do to prevent this from happening to yourself, your family, and friends. NIHL is the only type of hearing loss that is preventable. All that is needed is to practice good hearing healthy by:
- Educating yourself and those around you – make sure that they know what is too loud so that they can distance themselves from it or reduce the exposure to it.
- Protective gear – If loud noises are unavoidable, try to wear earplugs or other forms of protective devices which can be found in any hardware or sporting goods stores. This is especially important if your job involves loud noises as you will be exposed to loud noises daily for an extended duration. There are even laws that require companies to provide protective gear to their employees to protect their hearing.
- Protect your family – if you have young children who are not able to protect themselves, educate them regarding the importance of prevention and help them find a way to protect their hearing.
- Awareness – Help increase the awareness of NIHL among your family, friends, and neighbors and relay to them the hazards of loud noise exposure.
- Screening – If you have been exposed to loud noises before being aware of what it can do to your hearing, it may be a good idea to schedule a visit with your primary care physician to have your hearing tested.
Conclusion on Can Tinnitus be Caused by Ear Damage
The commonest cause of tinnitus is exposure to loud noises that causes ear damage. Repeated ear damage can lead to hearing loss which can cause tinnitus. Currently, there is no known cure for tinnitus except for symptomatic management. Prevention of ear damage may be the best way to avoid the onset of tinnitus.