In today’s world of leaf blowers, traffic and other loud sounds, everyone wants to enjoy an occasional moment of quiet. Yet for the millions of people with tinnitus, a day – or night – of peace is out of reach.
For them, an aggravating sound that seems like it’s coming from inside the ear itself rarely or never goes away. Keep reading to learn more about what tinnitus is, its symptoms and what treatments can help.
What is tinnitus and what are tinnitus symptoms?
Tinnitus is generally defined as the perception of sound in the absence of any actual sound or noise.
It can be a high-pitched ringing or buzzing in your ear or ears. Or it may sound like a roaring or hissing, or even a clicking, beeping or chirruping. Tinnitus can develop and increase in severity gradually or can occur and persist quite suddenly.
Tinnitus isn’t uncommon. In fact, it affects around 10-15% of people globally. But in 1-2% of the population, tinnitus is severe, meaning it’s debilitating or very difficult to tolerate.
Whether tinnitus develops gradually or suddenly, people who experience it often don’t understand why it’s happening and how it can be managed. And regardless of severity, often one of the first questions asked is, “what’s causing this?”
Common causes of tinnitus
Tinnitus is usually seen as a specific condition, but it’s actually a symptom of one or more possible conditions, which can include:
Hearing loss and inner ear damage
Tiny hair-like receptors inside your ear – sometimes referred to as hair cells – move and send signals to the brain in response to sound waves. Age, exposure to excessive noise and other factors can damage these receptors, causing them to send false signals that your brain interprets as constant noise.
Because tinnitus is often accompanied by hearing loss, many sufferers question whether tinnitus can cause hearing loss. The answer is no, though often the two conditions are closely related.
Infection, blockage or earwax within the ear
The ear and ear canal function best when they’re relatively clear. An infection or another condition can block your ear canal with fluid, wax or other substance. This blockage can affect the ear receptors or change the pressure within your ear and cause tinnitus.
Hearing impacted by a head injury
Direct and serious head injuries can damage areas linked to hearing, including the ear canal, hearing receptors and nerves, and the brain, resulting in the false perception of sound.
Medication and ringing in the ears
You may have noticed that ringing in the ears is listed as a possible side effect when reading medication descriptions and disclaimers. Tinnitus can appear or increase when medications are started or increased.
This condition involves chronic excess fluid in the inner ear. This fluid causes pressure changes, leading to possible hearing loss, balance issues and, not uncommonly, a perceived ringing or roaring in your ears. The cause of Meniere’s disease is unknown, and it usually affects people who are in their 40s, 50s or older.
Sinus infections and tinnitus
The significant nasal congestion that can accompany a sinus infection may cause increased pressure in the middle ear. This pressure can sometimes lead to ringing in your ears.
High blood pressure and tinnitus
High blood pressure increases the force, or pressure, by which blood moves through your ateries and veins, including those in your inner ear, and can cause tinnitus.
Other possible causes of ringing in the ears
Numerous medical conditions involving the inner and middle ear, such as otosclerosis, can cause tinnitus. Neurological conditions, blood vessel disorders, diabetes, migraines, autoimmune disorders and many other conditions can also cause tinnitus.
Can tinnitus be cured?
Whether mild or severe, tinnitus can be frustrating. But even though ringing in the ears can seem like a simple and straightforward condition, there are no universally effective treatments. And there’s no medication that can be taken to stop it.
The good news is that you can find some relief through using one or more therapies. The first step to identify likely treatment is diagnostic testing.
How is tinnitus diagnosed?
Testing for tinnitus might seem odd – you already know you have ringing in your ears. But your doctor and audiologist can conduct a range of tests to further understand the nature of your particular tinnitus case. They can then use this information to identify possible causes and offer personalized treatment options. Tinnitus testing may include:
A hearing test
Most hearing tests will measure your hearing ability at standard frequencies and volumes, then plot the results on a standard graph called an audiogram. Once they determine your ability to hear a range of volume levels at high, middle and low frequencies, your doctor can exam your middle ear and check for damage or impaired functioning of your tympanic membrane, middle ear bones, the tiny hair cells in your inner ear and other ear structures. Any injury or deterioration may affect your treatment options.
Pitch and loudness matching
This test uses a machine that plays sounds at precise pitches to determine the frequency of your tinnitus. Many masking devices and some white noise machines can be adjusted to the frequency of your tinnitus, which can make them more effective.
This test may involve moving your neck and shoulders, rolling your eyes, clenching your jaws and a range of other movements to see if bodily positioning affects the ringing in your ears. This can help determine the underlying cause of tinnitus.
How to treat tinnitus
While no pill or procedure can quickly and simply treat tinnitus, there are several options for managing tinnitus, which may include:
Tinnitus is often associated with hearing loss. Hearing aids can help by amplifying the sounds you need to hear while lessening your focus on the ringing or other sound made by tinnitus.
The psychological effects of tinnitus can often be reduced by covering or “masking” it with another, more tolerable sound. You could wear sound maskers in or near the ear. Various noise-making devices, such as fans, white noise machines, and white noise CDs, MP3s and smartphone apps can also be helpful. Some hearing aids can also be programmed to mask tinnitus.
Cleaning your ears
In instances where blockage of any source is causing or contributing to tinnitus, cleaning your ear canal can help. Doctors can safely do this by irrigating your ears using one of several methods.
A cochlear implant is a device that’s placed within one or both ears, and sends sound signals directly to your auditory nerve. Cochlear implants can be effective in addressing both significant hearing loss and ear ringing, and is usually used only in cases in which both conditions are present. Specialized testing is required to determine whether cochlear implants would be right for you.
Mental health approaches and techniques
In cases of highly bothersome and stubborn ear ringing, mental health therapy and coping techniques may also be helpful. They can include cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction, tinnitus activities therapy and tinnitus retraining therapy, among others.
Learn more about tinnitus and get help
When, tinnitus becomes frustrating, a physical exam is a good starting point in discovering possible causes, lessening symptoms and identifying effective symptom management techniques. Your primary care doctor can help diagnose your symptoms and work with you to find relief. They can also connect you to an audiology specialist if additonal treatment is needed.