Tinnitus – a common problem that affects millions of people of all ages – is the perception of an outside noise, often a slight buzzing or ringing sound, when there are no actual external stimuli causing the sound. Tinnitus is not a health condition itself but rather a symptom of an underlying health problem. Some of the most common causes of tinnitus include repeated exposure to loud noises, head or neck injuries, age-related hearing loss, and more.
Since no one else can hear the sounds of tinnitus, it can be a very frustrating and stressful problem to live with. Over time, it can make communication difficult, lead to challenges at work and in social settings, and even lead to anxiety, insomnia, or depression. While there is no cure for tinnitus, similar to type-1 diabetes, we can help you manage your symptoms so that you can enjoy your life.
What Is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus (pronounced ti-nə-təs or tə-nī-təs) — a.k.a. ringing or buzzing in the ears — is the awareness of a sound not caused by external noise. Nearly 50 million Americans suffer from constant ringing in their ears. While symptoms vary widely, most people characterize the sounds they perceive in one of three ways: tonal (a nearly continuous sound with well-defined frequencies), pulsatile (pulsing sounds, which often correlate to the heartbeat), or musical (music or singing, sometimes on a continuous loop).
Subjective vs. Objective
Most of the time, tinnitus is subjective, meaning other people cannot hear the sound experienced by the person with tinnitus (the buzzing, hissing, roaring, etc.). Subjective tinnitus often results from hearing loss or noise exposure, which damages the hair cells of the inner ear. With objective tinnitus, on the other hand, others can actually hear the sound heard by the tinnitus sufferer. While it is much less common, objective tinnitus results from noise generated by structures near the ear. For example, disorders that affect blood vessels, muscles, and certain nerves can cause spasms that produce perceptible sounds, typically a rhythmic clicking that others can also hear.
Facts about tinnitus:
- It is not a condition. It is a symptom of an underlying condition, such as a nervous system disorder, hearing loss, or an ear injury.
- There is no cure for tinnitus. However, like diabetes, it is very treatable.
- At least 50 percent of people living with constant ringing in the ears do not have measurable hearing loss. With so many causes, ringing in the ears can be associated with various health problems.
The American Tinnitus Association estimates the following:
- 50 million Americans experience tinnitus to some degree.
- 16 million have symptoms severe enough to require treatment.
- 2 million are so seriously debilitated they can’t function on a day-to-day basis.
Visit our page Sounds of Tinnitus to sample several different sounds that people with tinnitus experience. When you listen to these brief clips, you might recognize a similarity between the represented sound and your own experience. You can also use them to help others in your life understand what you are dealing with.
What Causes Tinnitus?
- Age-related hearing loss, also known as presbycusis
- Exposure to loud noise, especially over the long term (working around heavy construction equipment or firearms, frequently attending concerts, turning up the volume on your iPod, etc.)
- Earwax blockage, caused by the accumulation of earwax
- Ear bone issues, such as the stiffening of the bones in the middle ear
- Ménière’s disease a disorder characterized by vertigo, hearing loss, a feeling of fullness in the ear, and tinnitus
- Head or neck injuries, which can affect the inner ear and hearing nerves, typically causing tinnitus in only one ear
- Medications, including antibiotics, diuretics, antidepressants, cancer medications, quinine medications, and high doses of aspirin
In all cases, ringing in the ears involves the brain’s auditory cortex, which is responsible for hearing. Certain nerve cells and neural circuits are “tuned” to a specific pitch, like keys on a piano. When we experience hearing changes, our brains attempt to compensate, setting the cycle of tinnitus into motion.
The cycle of tinnitus refers to the phenomenon where sound created by tinnitus can cause a series of self-reinforcing symptoms that can lead to progressive worsening of tinnitus over time. The brain attempts to overcompensate, not being able to hear over tinnitus by amplifying all sounds, including the tinnitus itself. In the past, these factors made tinnitus very difficult to treat. Luckily, times have changed.
Regardless of the cause, tinnitus interrupts the transmission of sound from the ear to the brain. Some of the neural circuits no longer receive signals. Strangely, this does not cause hearing loss. Instead, when neural circuits do not receive stimulation, they react by chattering together, alone at first and then synchronously with each other. Once the nerve cells become hyperactive and occur at the same time, they simulate a tone the brain “hears” as tinnitus. Analogous to a piano, the broken “keys” create a permanent tone without a pianist playing the keys.
Tinnitus Treatment Is Crucial
Everyone living with ringing in the ears experiences it differently. It can be a low or high frequency, and its volume and pitch may change over time, with its severity varying from person to person. Those with chronic symptoms may suffer from insomnia, struggle to focus, anger easily, and work harder than usual to communicate with others. In such cases, treatment plays a crucial role in helping an individual regain control of his or her life.
* Please be warned – Most audiologists and hearing care providers offer only one solution – hearing aids. These may work for people with hearing loss, but amplification does not help tinnitus sufferers with normal hearing.
For more information about how we help people find relief, visit Tinnitus Treatment. If you are running out of hope, have been told that nothing can be done, and are worried that you won’t ever escape the ringing in your ears, visit Tinnitus Success Stories and hear from a few of our patients.
Can surgery cure tinnitus?
Surgery is only available if there is something anatomically or physically wrong with the ear. For example, if someone has a perforated eardrum causing tinnitus, tympanoplasty (the surgical repair of a hole in the eardrum) would fix that. It would also be very easy to diagnose. The affected would be acutely aware if they had a perforated eardrum. It would be painful, and they would have drainage.
In others, there may be some conductive hearing loss where the bones in the middle ear are not conducting the sound properly. Although very rare, there are surgical procedures to replace the bones in the middle ear.
Surgery is an option for less than 20 percent of all tinnitus cases. Many people suffering from ringing in the ears cannot identify one specific cause or injury that explains their symptoms.
What should I Do?
Schedule an Appointment
Take the first step toward relief by scheduling an evaluation with one of our audiologists.
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Experience the difference experience makes. Many of our patients say they wished they had come to see us sooner.
What Should I Do?
Take the first step toward relief by scheduling an evaluation with one of our audiologists. By carefully examining your medical history and conducting thorough testing, we can identify the underlying cause of your disturbance and recommend an effective treatment plan. In addition, if medically necessary, we may refer you to a physician to complete your diagnosis. In the meantime, follow our Tips from Tinnitus Experts to avoid exacerbating the problem.