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Unseen Suffering: Addressing Mental Distress with Tinnitus

Tinnitus affects more than 20% of Americans across the country, ranging from a mild yet annoying ringing to a debilitating and life-altering condition. Though the bothersome buzzing can reduce the quality of life of those suffering from tinnitus on its own, there is another consequence of tinnitus that often does not get the attention it deserves. Mental distress caused by tinnitus is a serious and dangerous complication, putting a person’s mental health in a precarious position and affecting those from all walks of life. William Shatner, famous actor and star of the Star-Trek TV series, explains in an editorial for the American Tinnitus Association, “Regardless of the characters I portray on TV and on the big screen, my tinnitus once buried me in a negative place where many of you are now – or have been. Believe me when I say, “I’ve been there.” Even with high-profile advocates focusing on mental health associated with Tinnitus, this mental distress is still troublingly absent from many doctor’s offices.

Depression, Anxiety, and Isolation

Like hearing loss, Tinnitus can result in serious mental distress during your day to day activities. Anxiety, depression, and behavior disorders are believed to affect over three-quarters of people living with severe tinnitus, prompting those struggling to isolate themselves, lose sleep, and even suffer from PTSD-like symptoms.
We have all been asked if we had “woken up on the wrong side of the bed.” before, but for those with tinnitus, this expression is sometimes a matter of fact. Insomnia is common with tinnitus, creating a vicious cycle in which sleeping becomes more difficult the more you worry about your tinnitus. Surveys have linked this cycle to irritability, anger, and externalized aggressive behavior.

Self-Harm and Suicide

Unfortunately, tinnitus may lead to even more horrifying outcomes. Due to mental distress, tinnitus has been linked to higher rates of self-harm and suicidal ideation. “It needs to be something audiologists aren’t afraid of. Mental health is not a taboo subject,” said Melissa Wikoff, AuD, for The Hearing Journal, “Sometimes we think the practice of audiology is not life or death. But sometimes with tinnitus, it really can be.”
A 2019 study analyzing the connection between suicide, tinnitus, and parental mental illness had come to a similar conclusion, recommending that hearing health professionals should screen for such ideations in patients, “especially for those with symptoms of depression and a childhood history of parental mental illness.”

Don’t Keep Hidden Distress Hidden For Long

Without receiving the proper help, tinnitus can quickly overwhelm your mental health. The fact that it isn’t widely spoken about is a mistake on the part of the healthcare community, and not one you should suffer from. If you are struggling with mental distress brought on by tinnitus, there is help for you. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, medication such as anti-depressants, and sound therapy are all treatment options that can help tame your tinnitus. As hearing professionals, we all must do better to raise awareness about the very real, yet unseen, aspects of tinnitus.

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Is My Exercise Routine Causing My Hearing Loss?

exercise and tinnitus

With centuries worth of knowledge and research surrounding the benefits of working out and your body and psyche, it’s no wonder that diet and exercise are prescribed to treat almost anything. Patients suffering from serious ailments such as heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, and even cancer are recommended to exercise to protect their health, but your dedication to the gym may actually cause more harm than good when it comes to your hearing. Before signing up for that new membership, learn how strenuous exercise alongside loud music could be the cause of your tinnitus and hearing loss.

Heavy Lifting and Damaged Hearing

Strenuous exercise can lead to serious exertion on your part, causing you to strain your body or hold your breath when lifting heavy weights. This extreme straining can cause a dangerous build-up of pressure within your brain known as “intracranial pressure”, which can sequentially find its way into the ears. Holding your breath while straining can compound the effect, leading to even more of this pressure in the brain and inner ear. Why is this dangerous? Increased pressure in the inner ear can cause a Perilymphatic Fistula (PLF), a small defect or tear in one or both thin membranes that keep fluid in the inner ear from reaching the middle ear cavity. If excessive pressure results in a PLF, inner ear fluid may leak into the middle ear, causing issues with balance, tinnitus, sensitive hearing, and even sudden hearing loss. These tears can heal on their own but sometimes may require surgery to the ear canal.

Turn Down The Volume of Your Workout Playlist

When committing to serious exercise, motivation is critical to reaching your workout goals. For athletes and fitness enthusiasts alike, the right soundtrack is vital to keeping you motivated and in the zone. But when listening to your favorite workout playlist, how loud is too loud?
Competing with noise from machines and other members, research has shown that many gyms play their music at a dangerous level to keep you stimulated, sometimes reaching volumes of 99 decibels. For perspective, the human ear can only withstand 1 hours worth of exposure to 94 decibels before damage occurs. If your ears are ringing after attending your next spin class, it might be beneficial to ask your gym to lower the tunes.
Most people exercise to their own catered playlist though, often played through headphones at an ear-splitting level. With iPhones capable of reaching volumes of 110 decibels (the equivalent of a live rock concert), you could be subjecting your hearing to 16 times the level deemed safe every time you hit the gym.

What You Can Do

  1. Lowering the volume during your next workout can save you from the bothersome buzzing of tinnitus or permanent hearing damage. Use the built-in volume limit feature on your iPhone or politely ask the gym to lower the music.
  2. If you know you will be subjected to loud noises such as music or members dropping weights, consider wearing ear protection on your next visit.
  3. Reduce the weight. Lifting far more than your body can handle may look cool, but a PLF is not.
  4. If you experience hearing loss or symptoms of tinnitus after a workout, seek out the advice and help of a health care provider or audiologist.