A person with tinnitus often hears “ringing in the ears,” but they may also hear hissing, clicking, or whistling sounds. It can be temporary, or it can be chronic and persistent.
Tinnitus is thought to affect 50 million Americans. It usually occurs after the age of 50 years, but children and adolescents can experience it, too.
Common causes are excessive or cumulative noise exposure, head and neck injuries, and ear infections. It can occasionally indicate a serious underlying medical condition.
There is no cure for tinnitus, but there are ways of managing it. Most people with chronic tinnitus adjust to the ringing over time, but 1 in 5 will find it disturbing or debilitating.
For some, it can lead to insomnia, difficulty with concentration, poor work or school performance, irritability, anxiety, and depression.
Fast facts on tinnitus
Here are some key points about tinnitus. More detail is in the main article.
Around 50 million Americans experience some form of tinnitus.
Most tinnitus is due to damage to the cochlea, or inner ear.
Certain medications can cause or worsen tinnitus, for example, aspirin, particularly in large doses.
People with tinnitus may be over-sensitive to loud noise.
Most people learn to live with tinnitus, but help is available for those who find this difficult.
What is tinnitus?
Tinnitus refers to a ringing, whistling or other sound in the ears.
Tinnitus happens when we consciously hear a sound that does not come from any source outside the body. It is not a disease, but a symptom of an underlying problem.
The noise is usually subjective, meaning that only the person who has tinnitus can hear it.
The most common form is a steady, high-pitched ringing. This can be annoying, but it does not usually indicate a serious condition.
In fewer than 1 percent of cases, it may be objective. This means that other people can hear the noise. This type of noise may be caused by cardiovascular or musculoskeletal movements in the person’s body. This can be a sign of a medical emergency.
Tinnitus is a non-auditory, internal sound that can be intermittent or continuous, in one or both ears, and either low- or high-pitched.
The varying sounds have been described as whistling, chirping, clicking, screeching, hissing, static, roaring, buzzing, pulsing, whooshing, or musical.
The volume of the sound can fluctuate. It is often most noticeable at night or during periods of quiet. There may be some hearing loss.
The first step is to treat any underlying cause of tinnitus.
This may involve:
prompt care for an ear infection
discontinuing any ototoxic medications
treating any temporomandibular joint (TMJ) problems, which affect the joint betwen the jaw bone and the cheek bone
There is no cure for most cases of tinnitus. Most people become accustomed to it and learn to tune it out. Ignoring it rather than focusing on it can provide relief.
When this does not work, the individual may benefit from treatment for the effects of tinnitus, insomnia, anxiety, hearing difficulties, social isolation, and depression. Dealing with these issues can significantly improve a person’s quality of life.
Here are some other things a person can do to manage tinnitus and its effects.
Sound therapy uses external noise to mask the individual’s perception of tinnitus. Low-level background music, white noise, or specialized ear maskers can help.
The choice of sound should be pleasant to the individual. Masking devices offer temporary relief, and the awareness of tinnitus returns when the sound therapy is turned off.
Hearing aids are a common type of sound therapy. They amplify environmental sounds and redirect attention to those noises instead of the tinnitus.
Tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT) involves retraining the auditory system to accept the abnormal sounds of tinnitus as natural rather than disruptive.
It involves help from a trained professional and wearing a device that emits low-level white noise. Ongoing counseling sessions can help people cope with the tinnitus.
This therapy’s success is proportionate to the severity of the tinnitus and the individual’s overall mental health.
Follow-up studies suggest that TRT provides relief for around 80 percent of people with tinnitus.