Tinnitus is a common condition characterized by the perception or sensation of sound even though there is no identifiable external source for the sound. Tinnitus is often referred to as a “ringing in the ears.” However, the sounds associated with tinnitus have also been described as hissing, chirping, crickets, whooshing, or roaring sounds, amongst others, that can affect one or both ears. Tinnitus is generally broken down into two types: subjective and objective. Subjective tinnitus is very common and is defined as a sound that is audible only to the person with tinnitus. Subjective tinnitus is a purely electrochemical phenomenon and cannot be heard by an outside observer no matter how hard they try. Objective tinnitus, which is far less common, is defined as a sound that arises from an “objective” source, such as mechanical defect or a specific sound source, and can be heard by an outside observer under favorable conditions. The sounds from objective tinnitus occur somewhere within the body and reach the ears by conduction through various body tissues. Objective tinnitus is usually caused by disorders affecting the blood vessels (vascular system) or muscles (muscular system).
Tinnitus is usually described as a ringing in the ears, but it can also sound like clicking, hissing, roaring, or buzzing. Tinnitus involves perceiving sound when no external noise is present. The sound can be very soft or very loud, and high-pitched or low-pitched. Some people hear it in one ear and others hear it in both. People with severe tinnitus may have problems hearing, working, or sleeping.
Ask your doctor about experimental therapies. No cure for tinnitus has been found but research is ongoing, so you should be open to experimental therapies. Electronic and magnetic stimulation of the brain and nerves might correct the overactive nerve signals that cause tinnitus. These techniques are still in development, so ask your doctor or hearing specialist if trying one might be right for you.
Subjective tinnitus is the most frequent type of tinnitus. It can have many possible causes, but most commonly it results from hearing loss. When the tinnitus is caused by disorders of the inner ear or auditory nerve it is called otic (from the Greek word for ear). These otological or neurological conditions include those triggered by infections or drugs. A frequent cause is noise exposure that damages hair cells in the inner ear.
Since most persons with tinnitus also have hearing loss, a pure tone hearing test resulting in an audiogram may help diagnose a cause, though some persons with tinnitus do not have hearing loss. An audiogram may also facilitate fitting of a hearing aid in those cases where hearing loss is significant. The pitch of tinnitus is often in the range of the hearing loss.
The accepted definition of chronic tinnitus, as compared to normal ear noise experience, is five minutes of ear noise occurring at least twice a week. However, people with chronic tinnitus often experience the noise more frequently than this and can experience it continuously or regularly, such as during the night when there is less environmental noise to mask the sound.
We occasionally recommend neuropsychological testing using a simple screening questionnaire -- depression, anxiety, and OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) are common in persons with tinnitus. This is not surprising considering how disturbing tinnitus may be to ones life (Holmes and Padgham, 2009). Persons with OCD tend to "obsess" about tinnitus. Treatment of these psychological conditions may be extremely helpful.
If your tinnitus is a symptom of an underlying medical condition, the first step is to treat that condition. But if the tinnitus remains after treatment, or if it results from exposure to loud noise, health professionals recommend various non-medical options that may help reduce or mask the unwanted noise (See Masking Devices below). Sometimes, tinnitus goes away spontaneously, without any intervention at all. It should be understood, however, that not all tinnitus can be eliminated or reduced, no matter the cause.