Tinnitus, commonly referred to as “ringing in the ears,” is the perception of sound when there is no actual external sound. Sufferers may perceive a variety of different sounds, including whooshing, buzzing, roaring, chirping, clicking, or hissing.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, more than 50 million Americans (or 15% of the general public) experience a form of tinnitus. Symptoms of tinnitus can interfere with quality of life, but it can also have long-term effects on your brain.
How Does Your Hearing Work?
Although tinnitus is closely linked to your ears, it impacts more than your ears. It all comes down to how you process and interpret the sounds that you’re hearing. And your brain plays a huge role in this. Let’s first take a look at how your hearing works:
- External sounds make sound waves that travel into your outer ear. Your outer ear includes your ear canal and eardrum. Sounds will travel down your ear canal and end up striking your eardrum.
- This causes your eardrum to vibrate. These vibrations then continue in to your middle ear. It is here that you find the ossicles, that are 3 tiny bones known as the malleus, incus and stapes. As your eardrum vibrates, it causes the ossicles to vibrate.
- These vibrations result in the fluid inside your inner ear (known as the cochlea) to move. This then causes the tiny hair cells inside your cochlea to move.
- These movements are then converted into electrical signals. These are sent to your auditory nerves, which then transmit this on to your brain. Your brain then processes and interprets these signals into sound, namely, what you’re hearing.
How Does Tinnitus Affect Your Brain?
Hearing is a remarkable process, and one that your brain is closely connected to. It is for this reason that tinnitus can have an impact on your brain. When you are experiencing symptoms of tinnitus, your brain tries to identify the source of the sound. This results in a heightened state of attention, as your brain tries to identify if the source of the sound poses a threat or not.
In many scenarios, this heightened response is a good thing. Strange noises outside in a darkened street should put you on alert. Once your brain has been able to identify the source of the sound (phew, just a cat!), your brain relaxes.
Unless you’re experiencing symptoms of tinnitus. Essentially, your brain is constantly trying to process and identify the source of the tinnitus sounds. This can end up leaving you mentally fatigued. A study by researchers at the University of Illinois found that chronic tinnitus keeps your brain more at attention, and less at rest. Over time, this can actually impact the structure of your brain.
Helping your brain relax can help reduce the impact that tinnitus has. As tinnitus is most commonly a symptom of an underlying condition, often hearing loss, treating the hearing loss can help minimize tinnitus. If you have been experiencing symptoms of tinnitus and are due for a hearing assessment, please contact the team at Family Audiology today. Call us on 607-323-4061 to request an appointment. Alternatively, click here to book a consultation with us online.