Have you ever heard a high pitched buzzing or ringing in your ears but nothing around you is the cause? Then you have experienced something called tinnitus. The incidence of tinnitus peaks between 60 and 69 but it can happen at any age. A recent study of 170 students aged 11 – 17 revealed an astoundingly high level of tinnitus at 55%. This is a sign that these adolescents are at serious risk for developing hearing loss as young adults.
Some 50 million US adults have reported having tinnitus. Sixteen million had it frequently while 2 to 3 million have tinnitus severe enough to be debilitating. Tinnitus increases with age and is associated with loud noise exposure including the use of firearms, leisure time and occupational exposure to loud noises, smoking and high blood pressure. Tinnitus is often associated with other health issues including emotional difficulties, lifestyle detriment, increased risks for depression, anxiety, insomnia and decreased overall health. The adolescents in a recent study were tested using a psychoacoustic hearing examination along with loudness discomfort and intensity of their tinnitus. Nearly 30% of those tested experienced tinnitus while being tested. Those with tinnitus were more sensitive to loud sounds. Among the 55% of the adolescents who self-reported having experienced tinnitus in the previous year, half experienced it after listening to loud music, 20% heard it at bedtime and 22% perceived it any time in silence. The tinnitus they experienced often affected their concentration and sleep and the majority heard it in both ears. They also were much more sensitive to loud sounds.
The research subjects were asked about their leisure habits that could put their hearing at risk. Listening to music using headphones was nearly universal, but also included attending parties and shows and raves. Surprisingly, exposure to music using headphones was less frequent and at lower volumes among those with tinnitus. They also attended fewer events with loud sounds. This may indicate that the subjects with tinnitus were more sensitive to sounds. These subjects also reported being more sensitive to noises that did not bother others. This implies they could be more vulnerable to the sounds in their environment and may reflect damage to the auditory pathways.
The high prevalence of tinnitus in the adolescents in this study raises concerns for their future hearing. In animal models the pace of hearing loss later in life is accelerated even by a single exposure to loud noise trauma of 100dB for 2 hours, that level of sound is equivalent to the noise from a chainsaw or jackhammer. Age related hearing loss in men correlates with their histories of noise exposure.
Tinnitus is associated with damage to the tiny hair cells in the inner ear that respond to sound vibrations. Very loud noises can overload these hair cells causing temporary or permanent damage. Neighboring hair cells try to compensate for the damaged hair cells also contributing to tinnitus. If these adolescents continue to expose themselves to loud sounds, they are likely to further the damage to their hearing and risk eventual deafness.