Tinnitus, also known as “ringing in the ear(s),” is the perception of sound when no actual sound is present. That sounds (pardon the pun) like people who experience it are crazy, hearing voices in their heads, etc. but, I can tell you from experience, it’s real and it’s annoying. Tinnitus can best be described by those who have it, including your author, as a high-pitched tone or a consistent whooshing (or other) sound which limits normal sound processing. The sound can be intermittent or continuous and causes hearing loss by preventing external sounds that occur within the same frequency range as the “ringing” from being heard. Annoying. Tinnitus makes people think of you as an old person before you are an old person.
Tinnitus can result from a wide range of underlying causes such as neurological damage, nasal allergies that induce or prevent fluid drain, ear infections, wax build-up, antibiotics and exposure to loud sounds. When that happens, the brain tries to make up for the abnormality by creating sounds of its own. So you hear sounds that only exist inside your head and not externally. So maybe you think you’re losing your mind. You’re not. At least, not from tinnitus.
Another cause of tinnitus associated with the Cranial nerve, the inner ear and the central processing centers of the brain is called Meniere’s Disease. According to the Mayo Clinic, Meniere’s Disease is a disorder of the inner ear which “appears to be the result of the abnormal volume or composition of fluid.” The membrane of the inner ear contains a fluid and is lined with hair-like sensors that respond to movement of the fluid. In order for all of the sensors in the inner ear to function properly, the fluid needs to retain a certain volume, pressure and chemical composition. Meniere’s Disease results when these properties of inner ear fluid are altered in some way. The same thing happens when you experience motion sickness. It is believed that these changes are caused by one or more of the following:
- Head trauma
- Viral infection
- Improper fluid drainage, perhaps because of a blockage or anatomic abnormality
- Unusual immune response
In most cases, Meniere’s Disease affects only one ear but the symptoms, nevertheless, can be debilitating. Yes, regrettably, I can attest to that fact, too, as I was diagnosed a few years ago. A typical episode starts with a feeling of fullness in your ear, increasing tinnitus and decreasing hearing followed by vertigo and, usually, severe nausea and vomiting. Such an episode might last two to three hours or more. It’s not pleasant, trust me. If you’ve ever had nausea and the compulsion to vomit for hours at a time, you know what I mean. I’ve had 3 episodes in my life and that was 3 too many!
There is no cure for Meniere’s Disease. The symptoms may be managed, however, with varying degrees of success. Motion sickness and anti-nausea medications are used to lessen the severity of vertigo. A diuretic may reduce the amount of fluid the body retains which in turn may help regulate the fluid volume and pressure in the inner ear. Dietary changes have been found to be helpful in limiting the frequency of episodes:
- Eating and drinking throughout the day in approximately the same amounts helps regulate body fluids.
- Avoiding foods and beverages that are high in salt will limit fluid retention. 1,500 mg or less of sodium each day is recommended.
- Limiting monosodium glutamate (MSG) which is found in some prepackaged food products and prepared restaurant foods. MSG contributes to fluid retention.
My best advice i.e. what works for me is avoiding large amounts of sodium-rich foods at any one meal and limiting caffeine consumption during any short period of time.
Lifestyle changes are also encouraged as a treatment for tinnitus. Avoiding stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine can ease symptoms. Managing stress and anxiety is also believed to help.
Natural remedies for tinnitus have gained acceptance and popularity as alternative ways to treat the condition. A holistic approach involves vitamin supplements, herbs and the avoidance of certain foods and medications.
If you have tinnitus or experience an episode that you suspect may be symptomatic of Meniere’s Disease, I recommend an evaluation by an otolaryngologist (ear, nose & throat doctor). Progress is being made with new technology to help the 50 million Americans and more around the world who experience tinnitus. Before I go, here are a few fellow tinnitus sufferers you may recognize:
- Barbra Streisand
- Paul Simon
- Alex Trebek
- David Letterman
- Tony Randall
- Ludwig van Beethoven
- Vincent van Gogh
- Larry King
- Bill Clinton
- Eric Clapton