Tinnitus is a noise or ringing sound in the ears. A common problem, affecting about 1 in 5 people, it is not a condition itself. It is a symptom of an underlying condition, such as age-related hearing loss, ear injury, or a circulatory system disorder. Although bothersome, tinnitus usually isn’t a sign of something serious. Although it can worsen with age, for many people, tinnitus can improve with treatment. Treating an identified underlying cause sometimes helps. Other treatments may reduce or mask the noise, making tinnitus less noticeable.
Symptoms of tinnitus include:
The phantom noise may vary in pitch from a low roar to a high squeal, and it may be heard in one or both ears. In some cases, the sound can be so loud that it may even interfere with one’s ability to concentrate or hear actual sound. Tinnitus may be present all the time, or it may come and go. There are two types of tinnitus:
Subjective tinnitus is tinnitus only you can hear. This is the most common type of tinnitus. It can be caused by ear problems in your outer, middle or inner ear, or by problems with the hearing nerves or the part of your brain that interprets nerve signals as sounds.
Objective tinnitus is tinnitus that can actually be heard by your doctor during an examination. This rare type of tinnitus may be caused by a blood vessel problem, an inner ear bone condition, or muscle contractions.
In many cases, the exact cause of tinnitus is never found. The most common cause of tinnitus is damage to inner ear cells. 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 your nerves into your brain. Your brain then interprets these signals as sound. If the hairs inside your inner ear are broken for some reason, they can “leak” random electrical impulses to your brain, causing tinnitus. Other possible causes include other ear problems, chronic health conditions, or injuries that affect nerves in your ear or the hearing part of the brain.
In many people, tinnitus is caused by one of these conditions:
Age-related hearing loss
Exposure to loud noise
Ear bone changes
Less common causes include:
Temperomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders
Head injuries or neck injuries
Head and neck tumors
High blood pressure
Turbulent blood flow
Malformation of capillaries
Use of antibiotics, cancer medications, diuretics, quinine medications, antidepressants, or aspirin
As with most health issues, smokers have a higher risk of developing tinnitus.
Tinnitus can significantly affect quality of life. Although it affects people differently, if you have tinnitus, you may also experience fatigue, stress, sleeping problems, trouble concentrating, memory problems, depression, anxiety, and irritability. Though treating these conditions may not affect tinnitus directly, they can definitely help you feel better.