Potential Tinnitus Complications and Long-Term Effects

A tinnitus diagnosis is often an unsettling experience, even if a person has already been living with the condition for weeks, months, or even years.

When a person is diagnosed with tinnitus, a doctor will explain that the problem is, in most cases, an issue of brain hyperactivity — not some kind of injury. “The knowledge that their brain is malfunctioning can be distressing,” says Michael Kilgard, PhD, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Texas at Dallas. The patient will also learn that there’s currently no cure for the condition. After hearing all this, it’s common for a person to both stress about their tinnitus and fixate on it.

“Stress tends to make tinnitus worse,” Dr. Kilgard says. He explains that tinnitus has both an auditory component — which he describes as the tone and intensity of the sound itself — and also an emotional component. “How much it bothers people is not always correlated with how loud it is,” he adds.

There’s even a theory that suggests a majority of people actually have tinnitus, but for most it doesn’t bother them unless they focus on it, explains Brett Comer, MD, a surgeon and associate professor of otolaryngology at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine in Lexington. In some ways, he says, tinnitus is comparable to some chronic pain conditions or to problems falling asleep at night: The more a person worries about it, the worse the problem gets.

“I tell people it will take your body and brain time to adapt,” Dr. Comer says. “A lot of people are able to cope with it, but we have some patients who are just debilitated by it.”

Here’s what you should know about how tinnitus can affect your life, as well as how to avoid being in that latter group of people who end up being debilitated by the condition.

Tinnitus Can Lead to Anxiety, Depression, Irritability, and Other Mental Health Complications

About 25 million Americans suffer from tinnitus, according to the American Tinnitus Association. And based on a national health survey, of the U.S. adults suffering with tinnitus, 26 percent reported anxiety and 25 percent reported depression in the trailing 12 months, compared to just 9 percent in those without tinnitus.

“For some people, the brain’s ability to cope with it or ignore it just isn’t there,” Comer says. Especially for people who already struggle with anxiety or depression disorders, tinnitus can exacerbate those conditions — or trigger some others.

Tinnitus may cause or contribute to:

  • Daytime fatigue or sleeping problems
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Memory problems
  • Stress
  • Mood swings
  • Distress
  • Irritability and frustration

“In some cases where we can’t manage the condition medically or surgically, we may refer people to a psychologist or psychiatrist,” he says. It’s not uncommon for these mental health providers to prescribe antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs to help patients manage their tinnitus-related mental health woes.

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Potential Tinnitus Complications and Long-Term Effects

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