In the fall of 2018, I woke up one morning to the sound of ringing in my right ear. After working in television for most of my life, I recognized the noise as a 15-kilohertz high-frequency vibrating sound. I figured someone in my house had turned on a TV set. To my surprise, no one was at home, and nothing was on. This high-pitched sound in my right ear continued to get worse as the days progressed.
I realized that my problem was tinnitus, and after about ten months, it still lingered.
Tinnitus is a ringing or buzzing noise in one ear or both that can either be constant or come and go. Hearing loss, wax build-up, and Meniere’s Disease are some of the many causes of tinnitus. According to the American Academy of Audiology, approximately 30 million Americans experience tinnitus. Severe cases can cause anxiety, depression, relationship problems, inability to concentrate, and lack of sleep.
After months of frustration, I tried two apps on my smartphone that are designed to mask tinnitus. While the apps helped me get through several days at work, the end result was just like the description—the apps only masked the tinnitus. I was hoping for a cure, but it just wouldn’t go away.
“There are not many satisfactory treatments, let alone a cure, for tinnitus,” said Marcia Raggio, Ph.D., when I contacted her asking about tinnitus and possible cures. Raggio is a Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences professor at San Francisco State University. “Not enough is known about its causes and origins, but much work is being done at this time,” said Raggio.
The buzzing in my ear really frustrated me and started to wear on my emotions. My family doc sent me to an audiologist. That visit proved my hearing was better than perfect, and there was no pressure in my ear canals. I was hoping for a treatment, advice—anything—but the audiologist only sent me to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor.
The ENT’s diagnosis had promise. After getting an MRI of my entire head, I was relieved to hear that nothing was terribly wrong. What my doctor suspected, however, was not on my radar. He asked if I was having problems with my teeth. Ironically, I had cracked a tooth the night before from grinding my teeth. The ENT told me that grinding teeth can cause Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction (TMJ), which in turn can cause tinnitus.
Wow, finally an answer to the cause. Now on to a solution. I was more than ready. I immediately got myself a night guard, and after wearing it every night for a few weeks, I’m happy to report that the tinnitus dissipated. I also noticed some things that can trigger the buzzing sound while awake—chewing gum, alcohol, and stress.
“It seems that the more anxious someone becomes due to their tinnitus, the louder it gets. Anecdotal advice has been to stay calm and distract yourself when you start to feel anxious,” said Raggio.
Those who experience tinnitus due to hearing loss can benefit from wearing a hearing aid. The device can reduce the buzzing noise and improve hearing, according to Raggio. Some newer hearing aids have tinnitus programs that provide a background noise that is a calming mechanism rather than a masking one. Other treatments include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is counseling that focuses on gaining control over the issue. There’s also Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT) that helps patients ignore the noises except when they focus on them.
If you plan on seeking advice from an audiologist for tinnitus symptoms, be sure to check if their license is valid and in good standing by visiting the California Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology and Hearing Aid Dispensers Board website at https://www.speechandhearing.ca.gov/.