Many people experience a persistent ringing in their ears. This common affliction, known as tinnitus, affects roughly 20 percent of the American population. Tinnitus is defined as the perception of sound when none is actually occurring. For some, it is a minor nuisance but for others, a major impediment to their quality of life.

It is important to note that tinnitus isn’t a disease itself but a symptom. As such, it can occur as the result of a number of conditions. These include hearing loss, noise exposure, head or neck trauma, high blood pressure, vascular disorders, heart conditions, ototoxic medications, benign tumors known as acoustic neuromas and impacted earwax. Sometimes, the cause is never determined. Individuals most at risk are male, over the age of 40 and smokers.

Tinnitus is most often described as a ringing in the ears but may also take the form of a buzzing, whooshing, roaring, clicking, hissing or whistling. Side effects include fatigue, depression, anxiety, irritability and memory/concentration problems.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for tinnitus itself. Unless the underlying condition responsible for symptoms is identified and can be treated, the most effective course of action is learning to change your perception of the phantom sounds. Doctors have developed a variety of successful strategies for dealing with tinnitus, one of which is the use of hearing aids.

Hearing aids are a very effective strategy for managing tinnitus.  Oftentimes, just by wearing hearing aids, most people will notice they are distracted from the ringing, allowing them to put the phantom sounds in the background.

Another management strategy is the use of white noise therapy. This principle uses random sound frequencies distributed throughout the hearing spectrum to disguise persistent phantom noises when hearing aids do not provide enough distraction. The patient learns to put their tinnitus in the background with the added distraction of white noise. Electronic devices made solely for this purpose exist, but an air conditioner, fan or humidifier can also be effective.

A similar concept involves acoustic neural stimulation. Acoustic signals are delivered through a handheld device, helping the neural circuits to become desensitized to the noise.

If you are experiencing bothersome tinnitus, it’s best to schedule a hearing test with an audiologist and an evaluation with an ear, nose and throat specialist.  More information about tinnitus including helpful tips can be found online through the American Tinnitus Association.