Tinnitus, commonly described as ringing in the ears, can affect about 750 million people around the world, according to new research based on about 50 years of data.
The study, published this week in the research journal JAMA Neurology, suggests that tinnitus is considered a major problem by more than 120 million people, most of whom are 65 years of age or older.
Researchers estimate that about 14% of adults experience tinnitus, while 2% experience a severe form of it. The prevalence also appears to increase with age: tinnitus affects 10% of young adults ages 18 to 44, 14% of middle-aged adults ages 45 to 64, and 24% of 65 – seniors.
The findings are consistent with previous estimates. The American Tinnitus Association estimates that nearly 15% of people, or more than 50 million Americans, experience tinnitus. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders says that about 10% of American adults, or nearly 25 million people, have had tinnitus that lasts for at least five minutes in the past year.
“This study suggests that the global burden of tinnitus is large, comparable to migraines and pain, and the lack of effective treatment options warrants a major investment in research in this area,” researchers wrote.
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What is Tinnitus?
Although tinnitus is commonly known as a ringing in the ears, it can take many other forms, according to the American Tinnitus Association, including buzzing, hissing, whistling, and clicking. In rare cases, it can also sound like music.
The sounds can be soft or loud, high or low, and can occur in one or both ears, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
The condition can be temporary or chronic, the ATA said. It is not a disease in itself, but is a symptom of other underlying health conditions, the association said.
What causes tinnitus?
In most cases, tinnitus is a response in the brain to damage to the ear or auditory system, according to the ATA. However, the association says that tinnitus can be a symptom of about 200 different health conditions, including hearing loss, middle ear obstructions, and head and neck trauma.
Even something as simple as a piece of earwax blocking the ear canal can cause tinnitus, according to the NIDCD. The condition can also be the first sign of hearing loss in older adults or can be a side effect of more than 200 different medications.
Still, some people can develop tinnitus for no apparent reason, the institute said.
“Scientists still disagree about what goes on in the brain to create the illusion of sound when it isn’t there,” according to the NIDCD.
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Effects of tinnitus
Tinnitus is usually not a sign of a serious health problem, according to the NIDCD. But if it’s loud and persistent, it can cause memory and concentration problems, fatigue, anxiety and depression.
“For some, tinnitus can be a source of genuine mental and emotional distress,” the institute said.
The ATA also said chronic tinnitus can be a debilitating condition that can interfere with a person’s ability to work and socialize.
Who is most at risk?
People at higher risk for tinnitus include the elderly, active military or veterans, people who work in loud environments and musicians, according to the ATA.
Military personnel can develop tinnitus when exposed to bomb explosions, and tinnitus is one of the most common service-related disabilities for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the NIDCD.
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Is there a cure for tinnitus?
There is “no scientifically validated cure” for most forms of tinnitus, according to the ATA. But treatment options can reduce the effects of the condition and help people live more comfortably.
The NIDCD recommends seeing a primary care physician to check if something like earwax is blocking the ear canal.
If a primary care physician cannot find the condition that may be causing tinnitus, they may refer a patient to an otolaryngologist who specializes in the ear, nose, and throat.
Treatments that can help tinnitus include hearing aids, counseling and portable sound generators, according to the NIDCD. Limiting exposure to loud noises can also help prevent tinnitus from getting worse.
Contact News Now Reporter Christine Fernando now at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @christinetfern.