Tinnitus (pronounced ten / ih / tus) is the perception or sensation of hearing sound when no external sound is present. These sounds are typically described as ringing, buzzing, roaring, chirping, or hissing.
The noises may vary in pitch from a low roaring sound to a high-pitched squeal. You can experience tinnitus in one ear, or both ears.
Tinnitus can significantly affect quality of life. Although it affects people differently, if you have tinnitus, you also may experience:
- Sleep problems
- Trouble concentrating
- Memory problems
- Depression, anxiety, and/or irritability
What causes tinnitus?
A number of health conditions can cause or worsen tinnitus. However, in many cases there an exact cause cannot be identified.
A common cause of tinnitus is inner ear cell damage. Tiny, delicate hairs in your inner ear move in relation to the pressure of sound waves. This triggers ear cells to release an electrical signal through a nerve, (auditory nerve) from your ear to your brain. Your brain interprets these signals as sound. If the hairs inside your inner ear are bent or broken, they can “leak” random electrical impulses to your brain, causing tinnitus.
Anyone can experience tinnitus, but these factors may increase your risk:
- Loud noise exposure. Prolonged exposure to loud noise can damage the tiny sensory hair cells in your ear that transmit sound to your brain. People who work in noisy environments such as factory and construction workers, musicians, and soldiers are particularly at risk.
- Age. As you age, the number of functioning nerve fibers in your ears declines, which could cause hearing problems often associated with tinnitus.
- Gender. Men are more likely to experience tinnitus.
- Smoking. Smokers have a higher risk of developing tinnitus.
- Cardiovascular problems. Conditions that affect your blood flow, such as high blood pressure or narrowed arteries (atherosclerosis), can increase your risk of tinnitus.
Because tinnitus is a perception, there is no way to truly test for tinnitus. Your doctor will diagnose tinnitus based on your symptoms, your medical history, and exam findings. A hearing test will likely be ordered to rule out any underlying conditions and to assess if any hearing loss is present. Your doctor may also may want you to have an x-ray, a CT scan, or MRI of your head.
Treatments for tinnitus
To treat your tinnitus, your doctor will first try to identify any underlying, treatable condition that may be associated with your symptoms. If tinnitus is due to a health condition, your doctor may be able to take steps that could reduce or eliminate the noise. Examples include:
- Earwax removal. Removing impacted earwax can decrease tinnitus symptoms.
- Treating a blood vessel condition. Underlying vascular conditions may require medication, surgery or another treatment to address the problem.
- Changing your medication. If a medication you’re taking appears to be the cause of tinnitus, your doctor may recommend stopping or reducing the drug, or switching to a different medication.
In some cases white noise may help suppress the sound so that it’s less bothersome. Your doctor may suggest using an electronic device to suppress the noise. Devices include:
- White noise machines. These devices, which produce simulated environmental sounds such as falling rain or ocean waves, are often an effective treatment for tinnitus. You may want to try a white noise machine with pillow speakers to help you sleep. Fans, humidifiers, dehumidifiers and air conditioners in the bedroom also may help cover the internal noise at night.
- Hearing aids. These can be especially helpful if you have hearing problems as well as tinnitus.
- Tinnitus retraining. A wearable device delivers individually programmed tonal music to mask the specific frequencies of the tinnitus you experience. Over time, this technique may accustom you to the tinnitus, thereby helping you not to focus on it. Counseling is often a component of tinnitus retraining.
There’s little evidence that alternative medicine treatments work for tinnitus. Acupuncture, hypnosis, ginkgo biloba, zinc supplements, and B vitamins have all been tried as treatments. Be cautious trying these alternative treatments.
Protect your ears.
If your tinnitus gets worse with stress, make sure to do things that decrease the stress in your life and help you to relax. Try to get enough sleep. Cut down on the amount of alcohol and caffeine you drink, and if you smoke, stop. These things can make your symptom worse. Avoid listening to loud noises. If you cannot avoid loud noises, use silicone earplugs or earmuffs to protect your ears.
American Tinnitus Association: https://www.ata.org