Imagine working at your desk, and a sudden ringing sound interrupts your concentration. You look around for the source and ask your colleagues if they hear it; they don't. The phantom ringing is in your head and is known as tinnitus — an audiological and neurological condition that causes the perception of sound despite no external noise being present (1).
Around 10 percent of people — over 25 million adults — in the United States experience tinnitus every year, making it one of the most common health conditions in the country (1). This growing population requires that unique solutions be designed into spaces like airports, restaurants, hospitals, offices, and nursing homes to help reduce stressful impacts on the nervous system. Imagine how high pitch sounds, the roar of a crowd, or the escalating noise of people talking in a food court all get experienced with their volume being turned up high in someone's head with no ability to turn it down other than softening the sound in the space by reducing the decibel levels.
Although the condition is typically associated with a ringing sound in the ears, it can also present with a loud or soft clicking, buzzing, or hissing sound in either ear (1, 2) that may be an acute, temporary condition or an ongoing chronic health concern (1). Around five million people suffer from chronic tinnitus, and two million find it debilitating, impairing their ability to hear, work, and sleep (1, 2).
Most people have subjective tinnitus, meaning only they can hear the noise, ranging in pitch from a low roar to a high squeal. (3) In rare cases, tinnitus presents as a rhythmic pulsing or whooshing aligned with the heartbeat. This type of tinnitus is called pulsatile or objective tinnitus, and the doctor may be able to hear it when they do an examination (3).
Tinnitus: an irritating symptom of an underlying condition
Tinnitus is not a disease but a symptom of an underlying health condition. Although tinnitus that lasts only a few seconds may be caused by a harmless blockage like ear wax, it can also be symptomatic of more severe underlying conditions. According to the American Tinnitus Association (ATA), most cases of tinnitus are a sensorineural reaction in the brain from damage to the auditory system that results in hearing loss (1).
However, approximately 200 health disorders may present tinnitus as a symptom (1). Ear infections, heart disease, brain tumors, hormonal changes, Meniere's disease, or thyroid disease, may all present tinnitus as a symptom (2).
Sometimes there's no known cause for the ringing, called idiopathic tinnitus. Although idiopathic tinnitus has no cure, there are treatments to ease its intensity (2).
The ATA recommends that people experiencing tinnitus see their physician or hearing healthcare professional for a diagnosis of the underlying cause. Often, fixing the leading cause will eliminate tinnitus (1).
Hearing loss is a common cause of tinnitus
Hearing loss is the most commonly associated cause of tinnitus and is the result of damage to the auditory system.
Age-related hearing loss partly explains why tinnitus is more typical in older adults, with one in five elderly adults experiencing the symptom (4). It commonly starts around age 60 and tends to affect both ears and the sensory loss of high-frequency sounds (1). A study published in the Noise & Health journal found that chronic tinnitus is subjectively louder, more annoying, and distressing for older adults than younger patients (5).
Noise-induced hearing loss can result from a solitary traumatic experience or continuous exposure to loud noise over time. This type of hearing loss can be in one or both ears and often causes people to lose hearing at the frequency of the triggering sound (1). The ATA notes that researchers are still investigating the specific biological process by which hearing loss is associated with tinnitus. However, it is known that the loss of certain sound frequencies does lead to specific changes in how the brain processes sound (1).
"In short, as the brain receives less external stimuli around a specific frequency, it begins to adapt and change," the ATA states. "Tinnitus may be the brain's way of filling in the missing sound frequencies it no longer receives from the auditory system."
Tinnitus caused by middle ear obstructions
Increased pressure in the inner ear due to ear canal blockages can affect and irritate the eardrum and spur the onset of tinnitus. Common obstructions include excessive ear wax, head congestion, loose hair from the ear canal, and dirt or foreign objects (1). Fortunately, removing these obstructions typically alleviates tinnitus. However, in some cases, the blockage may cause permanent damage and result in chronic tinnitus (1).
Treatment of tinnitus: home based tricks and emerging tech
While treating the underlying cause of tinnitus often resolves the irritating symptom, there are methods of reducing the ringing while experiencing it.
Dr. Jan Strydom recommends placing your palms over your ears with the fingers resting on the back of the head with the middle fingers pointing toward one another above the base of the skull. Next, the index fingers are placed on top of the middle fingers and should be snapped onto the head to make a loud drumming noise. Strydom recommends repeating this several times throughout the day to reduce tinnitus (6).
This technique likely works because it relaxes tight suboccipital muscles that commonly cause tinnitus. These muscles are often overworked while people sit in front of a computer desk or hunch over their phones (6).
Emerging and accessible technology may also offer effective tinnitus treatment. Promising results of a therapy that uses an app to treat tinnitus were recently published in the Frontiers in Neurology journal (7). The idea behind the therapy is to rewire the brain so it "de-emphasizes" the sound of tinnitus to a meaningless background noise, explained Associate Professor in Audiology Grant Searchfield. The treatment plan involves the person listening to a range of sounds through Bluetooth headphones and providing the app with feedback.
He added that earlier trials show white noise, goal-based counseling, goal-oriented games, and technology-based therapies are effective for some people, but the new app provides a quicker and more effective treatment, taking 12 weeks instead of 12 months to see results.
With 65 percent of the participants finding improvement from the app, Searchfield said it is likely to directly impact future tinnitus treatment (7).
Making the workplace more accessible for tinnitus sufferers
Noise in the workplace can be an irritating distraction even for those with a full hearing range, with studies showing it can reduce productivity and concentration and increase stress. For those experiencing tinnitus and hearing loss, the ambient noise of a work environment can be debilitating, and a rising accessibility concern is making spaces acoustically comfortable for those with hearing conditions, including tinnitus.
According to the Hearing Health Foundation, more than a third of people with tinnitus have reported that the condition negatively affected their work prospects, with one of the most significant difficulties being concentration. Forty-one percent of survey respondents reported their tinnitus affecting their concentration mildly, 33 percent moderately, and 20 percent said it affected their concentration severely (8). The Foundation explains that the constant ringing of tinnitus reduces concentration as the individual frequently tries to push the sound aside to focus on other things (8).
Understanding what your work colleagues are communicating can also be a struggle for those with tinnitus. Auditory processing is when the brain recognizes sounds and interprets them into meaningful information (9). While this is an easy unconscious process for those with full hearing, an environment with poor acoustics makes it difficult for those with hearing loss to hear and understand what is being said (9).
A loud work environment not only impacts productivity and communication but can make the aggravation of tinnitus worse. Around 40 percent of people with tinnitus suffer from hyperacusis or increased sound sensitivity. Hyperacusis can make even average noise levels cause ear pain or a spike in tinnitus (8). Also, stress, often caused by loud sounds, can make the ringing louder (10).
Creating work and social environments that are mindful of people's hearing levels should focus on reducing noise. This may be accomplished with a combination of acoustic materials, furnishings like carpets, curtains, and soft chairs that don't reverberate sound. Allowing employees to use headphones to listen to white noise or reduce the outside sound can help, and it's important to remember each person's needs are unique. FSorb’s noise-absorbent panels designed to absorb sound are also a highly effective solution and reduce the distance that noise and conversations can travel.
Our goal at FSorb is to improve health and well-being by using environmentally friendly and aesthetically pleasing designs to minimize the health-related impacts of noise. Our sound-absorbing panels make a space more accommodating for those struggling with tinnitus, can help reduce or prevent noise-induced hearing loss that causes tinnitus, and could positively impact the employee's work experience and their productivity and concentration.
At FSorb, we are motivated by improving human health and do so by creating eco-friendly acoustic products. Our mission is to help designers build beautiful spaces that reduce excess ambient noise while calming the human nervous system. With over 25 years in the acoustic business we stand behind FSorb as a durable, environmentally friendly, and low-cost product. If you want an acoustic solution that is safe to human health at an affordable price, then we are your resource.
Why Are My Ears Ringing. (n.d). American Tinnitus Association. Retrieved December 12, 2022 from https://www.ata.org/about-tinnitus/why-are-my-ears-ringing/
Tinnitus Treatment and Remedies. (February 27, 2022). Healthline. Retrieved December 12, 2022 from https://www.healthline.com/health/tinnitus-remedies#behavioral-therapies
Tinnitus. (November 30, 2022). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved December 12, 2022 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/tinnitus/symptoms-causes/syc-20350156
Oosterloo BC, Croll PH, Baatenburg de Jong RJ, Ikram MK, Goedegebure A. Prevalence of Tinnitus in an Aging Population and Its Relation to Age and Hearing Loss. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2021 Apr;164(4):859-868. doi: 10.1177/0194599820957296. Epub 2020 Sep 29. PMID: 32988263; PMCID: PMC8027937.
Al-Swiahb J, Park SN. Characterization of tinnitus in different age groups: A retrospective review. Noise Health. 2016 Jul-Aug;18(83):214-9. doi: 10.4103/1463-1741.189240. PMID: 27569409; PMCID: PMC5187663.
This simple trick may help with Tinnitus. (October 16, 2019). TruDenta. Retrieved December 10, 2022 from https://trudenta.com/this-simple-trick-may-help-with-tinnitus/
Breakthrough in search for tinnitus cure. (August 9, 2022). University of Auckland. Retrieved December 10, 2022 from https://www.auckland.ac.nz/en/news/2022/08/09/breakthrough-in-search-for-tinnitus-cure.html
Working With Tinnitus. (January 28, 2020). Hearing Health Foundation. Retrieved December 12, 2022 from https://hearinghealthfoundation.org/blogs/working-with-tinnitus
Improve room acoustics. (n.d.). Hearing Link Services. Retrieved December 12, 2022 from https://www.hearinglink.org/living/lipreading-communicating/improve-room-acoustics/
What Makes Your Tinnitus Worse? (July 6, 2018). Arizona Hearing Specialists. Retrieved December 12, 2022 from https://arizonahearing.com/what-makes-your-tinnitus-worse/