Imagine a radio playing inside your head and you can’t shut it off. It makes ringing, chirping, hissing, buzzing, clicking, roaring and maybe even shrieking sounds—or sometimes a combination of sounds at varying degrees of loudness. If you can imagine this happening in one or both ears, you have some idea of what it’s like to have tinnitus. This is a hearing problem that can impact concentration, memory and sleep. It can be deeply disruptive, even leading to emotional anxiety and depression in some people.
It’s not uncommon to experience a temporary bout with tinnitus, maybe after a loud concert. But roughly 20 million people have burdensome chronic tinnitus, and 2 million have extreme cases.
The condition is especially common among certain types of people. “It is the number one disability in our veteran population,” says Douglas M. Hildrew, MD, a specialist for Yale Medicine Otolaryngology, explaining that exposure to the loud sounds of gunfire and explosives puts them at risk. The condition also affects significant numbers of first responders, construction workers, musicians, people who work in factories and anyone else who is exposed on a regular basis to loud noise without appropriate hearing protection. “Tinnitus can range from a minor nuisance to a career-altering or life-changing disability. It’s really something we need to take seriously,” Dr. Hildrew says.