After years of ascribing cases of tinnitus to environmental factors, new research is forcing us to ask ourselves: is tinnitus hereditary after all? Do you inherit tinnitus from your parents the way you do a receding, difficult-to-hide hairline (thanks, Mom)?
Traditional thinking has always attributed tinnitus to environmental factors: one too many loud rock concerts (or whatever the kids are listening to these days) or neglecting to wear hearing protection on a loud job site.
But a new study conducted by Dr. Christopher R. Cederroth, an associate professor of physiology and pharmacology at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, seems to suggest otherwise that tinnitus is, at least in part, hereditary. (Cue dramatic music.)
An Important Finding
Dramatic music or no, Dr. Cederroth’s findings are quite important. Treatments for tinnitus is often effective, but they could be better (especially in more severe cases). Finding new, effective treatments is easier when you know the root cause you’re trying to address. If this research pans out and there is a genetic link to tinnitus, doctors and hearing professionals will be able to do two things:
- Develop preventative therapies. If researchers can effectively “mark” the genes that cause tinnitus, medical professionals will be able to determine who’s predisposed. And if you’re predisposed to tinnitus, you’ll be able to take preventative steps to keep it at bay (like wearing earplugs to your rock-and-roll shows).
- Develop genetic therapies. In theory, if tinnitus is caused by certain genetic factors, someday doctors could develop therapies that treat the affected genes and take out tinnitus all together. This is, of course, a long way off. And it depends on whether this research holds up to repeated inspections (also known as the scientific process). But, clearly, a cure or treatment for tinnitus is the goal of all tinnitus research in some form or another.
That Doesn’t Mean You Can Ignore Hearing Protection
Of course, if your biological parents don’t exhibit any symptoms of tinnitus, you might think you’ve won the ear-health lottery and that you can turn up the volume on your headphones. Take a minute to think about that first.
First and foremost, tinnitus is not the only environmentally-driven hearing ailment that you need to think about. You will always want to avoid degenerative damage to your ears regardless of whether it’s tinnitus or not (that means listening to your music at a reasonable volume).
Second, this most recent research does not suggest that tinnitus cannot develop outside of a genetic trait passed on from your biological parents. It’s all statistics; you might be less likely to develop tinnitus, but it can still happen (so there’s not much harm in wearing ear plugs from time to time–especially when loud noises are about).
Thanks, Mom and Dad
Even if this research is backed up with other studies, your biological parents aren’t going to bear all of the blame for your tinnitus. There are some environmental factors that are known contributors to tinnitus:
- A single exposure to a sudden, intensely loud noise.
- Prolonged exposure to low-level, but high-intensity, sounds.
- Other illnesses or conditions that may not at first seem connected to your hearing or your ears.
- Infections or blockages in the ear.
Any of these issues can present as the ringing in the ears that is characteristic of tinnitus. The degree to which genetics contributes to the process is unknown. Some people will go to a loud concert (I don’t know why I’m hung up on that example–it could be a sporting event or air show or any number of things, but you get the idea) and be just fine the next day; others will experience temporary tinnitus as a result. For still others, that temporary tinnitus will morph into a permanent issue requiring treatment.
Your parents aren’t to blame for everything (unless they threw away all of your comic books and/or baseball cards; you can never let them forget that).
The Beginning of More Research
This research into the heredity of tinnitus challenges decades of thinking on the subject. (Research like this can cause quite a ruckus amongst scientists.) So there’s likely to be more research on the subject soon, and hearing specialists will incorporate new thinking into their treatment options.