There is no known cure, but new technology offers ways to cope with ‘ringing in the ears’
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
On March 21, Kent Taylor, the founder and CEO of the Texas Roadhouse restaurant chain, died from suicide at age 65. In a press release his family sent to the Associated Press, Taylor “took his own life” following “a battle with post-COVID related symptoms, including severe tinnitus.”
Tinnitus, also called ringing in the ears, is not a disease but usually a symptom of damage to the auditory system. People with tinnitus hear phantom sounds such as buzzing, humming, clicking, chirping or, rarely, looped, repetitive music.
For a small minority, the unwanted sounds become extremely bothersome and interrupt sleep and activities of daily living. Scattered anecdotal reports have linked COVID-19 with tinnitus. Shortly before his death, Taylor, a longtime philanthropist, committed to funding research on tinnitus.
COVID-19 has also been linked with depression and anxiety. Left untreated, depression and anxiety raise the risk of suicide. Research printed in a November 2020 issue of Lancet Psychiatry indicates that after reviewing 69.8 million electronic health records, 20% of the 62,000 patients diagnosed with COVID-19 were also diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder such as anxiety, depression or insomnia within three months. Of those, 5.8% were a first-time mental health diagnosis. The study compared people with COVID-19 with patients without the virus during the same period, which means that the illness itself, and not just societal shifts and stress contributed to the increase in mental health diagnoses.
“There are three categories of tinnitus sufferers,” said Doug Brown, audiologist and owner dB Audiology Associates, P.C. in Syracuse. “The majority hear it once in a while and can push it in the background. The next is where it’s disruptive and it can alter how they function. The third group, which is smaller, is the group where Kent was. It is totally disruptive and rules their lives. There have been others who have died by suicide because the ringing was so bad.”
He thinks that the link between COVID-19 and tinnitus occurs because physical stressors like fevers and fighting infections can aggravate tinnitus. The patient is also not as active while ill, allowing the focus to shift to the tinnitus.
“There are many reasons that tinnitus can fluctuate in its intensity, including stress, fatigue, medical conditions that are not under control, noise and high sodium intake,” Brown said.
Among patients with severe tinnitus, he very often sees tinnitus, hearing loss and anxiety, depression and stress concurrent conditions, although other health conditions can cause tinnitus.
Since tinnitus is in part of the brain that correlates with hearing loss, those with tinnitus usually have hearing loss.
“In fact, the hearing loss may not be evident to you, but it may be present in the higher frequencies—pitches—which are not used for speech communications,” Brown said.
Other causes can include excessive earwax, trauma, certain medications, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) issues, blood flow issues, psychiatric disorders, tumors, vestibular issues such as dizziness or vertigo and autoimmune diseases. Diet, stress, alcohol and caffeine can worse tinnitus. Though it has no cure, interventions can mitigate its effect.
Brown said that for most patients with tinnitus, wearing a hearing aid can help reduce the effects of hearing only the unwanted sounds. Audiologists who have a certificate in tinnitus management from the American Board of Audiology specialize in tinnitus.
Of the more than 45 million Americans with tinnitus, only 4% say that it significantly interferes with their activities of daily living such as sleep and work.
“There are many steps we can try to reduce the tinnitus,” said Nicole Anzalone, audiologist and owner Syracuse Hearing Solutions in Camillus. “There are no cures but ways to manage it. One of the simplest ways is we’d try tinnitus-masking sound therapy.”
Using apps or devices specific for this purpose, patients listen to white noise or other sounds that mask the unwanted sounds.
“It is kind of like presenting a noise in your ear to get rid of the sounds that you hear,” Anzalone said. “What you’re doing is keeping your ears and the nerves creating the tinnitus busy.”
Retraining therapy is another method that trains the brain to stop paying attention to the tinnitus sound. Much like people who eventually become used to the different sound of a new refrigerator, many people with tinnitus can learn to not pay attention to the phantom sounds. But it is more challenging for hearing than other senses to develop tolerance.
Each tinnitus patient is screened for mental health issues so that the office can refer them to a mental healthcare provider.
Patients should resist searching the internet for information unless they view the sites of reputable health organizations. They should seek a medical professional specializing in tinnitus for information and treatment.
For more information, visit: American Tinnitus Association (www.ata.org), Hearing Loss Association of America (www.hearingloss.org), American Speech and Hearing Association (www.asha.org), American Academy of Audiology (www.audiology.org) and the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (www.nidcd.nih.gov).