A diagnosis of tinnitus is based upon identification of characteristic symptoms, a detailed patient history, a thorough clinical evaluation and complete audiologic testing. These steps will help to differentiate rhythmic tinnitus from non-rhythmic tinnitus. It cannot be overemphasized that tinnitus is a symptom of another underlying condition and not a diagnosis in and of itself. Because of the high number of underlying causes of tinnitus, a variety of specialized tests to detect the specific cause may be necessary. Attempting to identify the underlying cause of tinnitus is the first step in evaluating a person with tinnitus.
Most of the causes of tinnitus alter neurological activity within the auditory cortex, the portion of the brain responsible for hearing. The transmission of sound is interrupted, so some of the neural circuits fail to receive signals. Instead of causing hearing loss, as you might expect due to the lack of stimulation, the neural circuits begin chattering. First, they chatter alone. Then, they become hyperactive and synchronous. When we experience this deviation, our brains attempt to compensate for the change by interpreting the neurological activity as sound. This can resemble ringing, buzzing, hissing, whistling, or roaring, amongst a variety of other noises.
Most tinnitus is subjective, meaning that only you can hear the noise. But sometimes it's objective, meaning that someone else can hear it, too. For example, if you have a heart murmur, you may hear a whooshing sound with every heartbeat; your clinician can also hear that sound through a stethoscope. Some people hear their heartbeat inside the ear — a phenomenon called pulsatile tinnitus. It's more likely to happen in older people, because blood flow tends to be more turbulent in arteries whose walls have stiffened with age. Pulsatile tinnitus may be more noticeable at night, when you're lying in bed and there are fewer external sounds to mask the tinnitus. If you notice any new pulsatile tinnitus, you should consult a clinician, because in rare cases it is a sign of a tumor or blood vessel damage.
Noise-induced hearing loss - Exposure to loud noises, either in a single traumatic experience or over time, can damage the auditory system and result in hearing loss and sometimes tinnitus as well. Traumatic noise exposure can happen at work (e.g. loud machinery), at play (e.g. loud sporting events, concerts, recreational activities), and/or by accident (e.g. a backfiring engine.) Noise induced hearing loss is sometimes unilateral (one ear only) and typically causes patients to lose hearing around the frequency of the triggering sound trauma.
The majority of cases of tinnitus are subjective. Objective tinnitus is far less common. However, a diagnosis of objective tinnitus is tied to how hard and well the objective (outside) listener tries to hear the sound in question. Because of this problem, some clinicians now simply refer to tinnitus as either rhythmic or non-rhythmic. Generally, rhythmic tinnitus correlates with objective tinnitus and non-rhythmic tinnitus correlates with subjective tinnitus. Specific forms of tinnitus such as pulsatile tinnitus and muscular tinnitus, which are forms of rhythmic tinnitus, are relatively rare. Pulsatile tinnitus may also be known as pulse-synchronous tinnitus. Properly identifying and distinguishing these less common forms of tinnitus is important because the underlying cause of pulsatile or muscular tinnitus can often be identified and treated.
The noise heard by people with tinnitus may be a buzzing, ringing, roaring, whistling, or hissing sound and is often associated with hearing loss. Some people hear more complex sounds that may be different at different times. These sounds are more noticeable in a quiet environment and when people are not concentrating on something else. Thus, tinnitus tends to be most disturbing to people when they are trying to sleep. However, the experience of tinnitus is highly individual. Some people are very disturbed by their symptoms, whereas others find them quite bearable.
Exposure to loud noise. Loud noises, such as those from heavy equipment, chain saws and firearms, are common sources of noise-related hearing loss. Portable music devices, such as MP3 players or iPods, also can cause noise-related hearing loss if played loudly for long periods. Tinnitus caused by short-term exposure, such as attending a loud concert, usually goes away; both short- and long-term exposure to loud sound can cause permanent damage.