What is Tinnitus?

Interest in tinnitus and its treatment has grown in recent years, largely due to increasing awareness that tinnitus is the most common service-connected disability for veterans returning from recent military service in Iraq and Afghanistan (Department of Veterans Affairs, 2010). Tinnitus is a medical term for acoustical perceptions heard in the ear(s) or head, but not produced by external sound. EarPuzzleThis sound, which is often described as a ringing, buzzing, pulsing, whistling, or humming, can be experienced in one or both ears with varying intensity, loudness, and pitch. Approximately 50 million people in the United States experience tinnitus at some point in their lives. Around 16 million of these Americans experience tinnitus bothersome enough to consult their doctor. Two to three million are so severely affected by their tinnitus that their ability to function is severely impaired.

Tinnitus is a symptom rather than a disease and may develop from exposure to loud noise; a head injury; aging, outer, inner, or middle ear problems; neck or jaw disorders; cardiovascular disease; or use of prescription or non-prescription drugs. While many theories have been proposed to explain the occurrence of tinnitus, it is a multimodal disorder that may have different causes and different pathophysiologies. This makes tinnitus difficult to treat; oftentimes, interventions meet with only variable success. 

closeupTinnitus can have a major impact on a person’s life. Severe tinnitus is most commonly associated with anxiety, distress, sleep disturbance, and depression. Disrupted sleep is the most significant complaint, affecting as many as 70% of tinnitus patients. Studies report a lifetime prevalence of 62% for major depression, with 48% of people with tinnitus displaying current depression, and 45% reporting an anxiety disorder. Poor attention and concentration, interference with work, and negative impact on personal relationships are commonly reported by patients. Almost all patients indicate that stress or tension makes their tinnitus worse.

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