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KERA Health Checkup: Tinnitus

Dr. Kenneth Pugh
Dr. Kenneth Pugh

By Sam Baker, KERA Morning Edition Host

Dallas, TX –

For some it's simply ringing in the ears, but some 40 to 50-million people suffer from chronic or prolonged tinnitus. In a KERA Health Checkup, Sam Baker talked about this with Dr. Kenneth Pugh. The head of audiology at U-T Dallas' Callier Center for Communicative Disorders described what tinnitus is.

Dr. Pugh: A person hears a sound, but there isn't anything for an external source. And usually it's high pitch or low pitch, meaning there's a tonal quality to it.

Sam: Most people think of it as ringing in the ears? That's what most people think of?

Dr. Pugh: Or I have this chirping noise in my ear or I have these sounds in my head.

Sam: So what causes it?

Dr. Pugh: usually anything that has the ability to cause hearing impairment can also cause tinnitus. Some of the common instances that occur are noise exposure or noisy workplace environments or noisy social habits.

Sam: That said, in this age of iPhones, cell phones, iPods, electronic devices staying on our ears constantly, is that having any effect on the number of cases of tinnitus?

Dr. Pugh: Oh, it's possible. They've had several stories appear in the Wall Street Journal about the impact of hearing impairment, the impact of tinnitus due to extended iPod use and we're often asked to provide our input into that. The key is just taking care of your hearing when you're in loud environments. Sure, I mean you could use anything from just over-the-counter foam earplugs or you could have some custom-made earplugs made for you as well. There are a lot of things that occur with tinnitus, but the key is there is a great deal of individual susceptibility that surrounds it. Something that causes tinnitus for one person isn't going to cause it for several other people.

Sam: How serious can it get?

Dr. Pugh: Well, it's serious to the point it can influence personal relationships, the degree to which you can fulfill the duties of your work, your lifestyle. There are several people who have experienced tinnitus that require intervention from a medical perspective because they are concerned about their quality of life and it bothers them to the point that they want to make some changes.

Sam: There's no cure?

Dr. Pugh: There isn't a lot that can be done to just totally eliminate it.

Sam: But there are treatments. I understand there's something called neuromonics?

Dr. Pugh: There is a company called Neuromonics, and they obviously provide they're sound generators. It works on the concept of tinnitus masking. And what that means is a person has tinnitus or they're experiencing tinnitus at a certain level, and it's usually soft versus loud, or it's at a ceratin pitch, meaning low versus high. What you try to do is you try to match the tinnitus with a sound that covers or sounds just a little bit louder than the sounds they are experiencing so that the person doesn't perceive that sound. For several people, that's been useful.

Sam: If someone came to you today and said I'm having this problem, what would be the first thing you'd recommend?

Dr. Pugh: Oh, without a doubt a pretty extensive evaluation for tinnitus. You have a routine hearing evaluation, but at the same time, within that evaluation, there are components that are done to determine the level of tinnitus that the person has. And then from there, you try to do things, as you had mentioned before with neuromonics, that's something that's an option for that individual.

Sam: In the meantime, what can a person do to guard against tinnitus?

Dr. Pugh: if you'll indulge me for just a moment, I'm obviously an audiologist and biased about hearing. And typically what I tell most people is put hearing the "health bus". People will get medical checkups for their eyes. They'll get medical checkups for their heart, their cholesterol. They'll have all these visits. But they very rarely take health visits for their hearing. I just think it's nice, even if your hearing is normal, to have a baseline test to show that it's normal, so that if it occurs you have a decrease in your hearing, you'll be able to monitor that.

Dr. Kenneth Pugh is head of Audiology at U.T. Dallas.

Tinnitus can also be a sign of an underlying medical condition. You'll find more on that and treatments for tinnitus at: