Tinnitus is the perception of sound when no actual external noise is present. While it is commonly referred to as “ringing in the ears,” tinnitus can manifest many different perceptions of sound, including buzzing, hissing, whistling, swooshing, and clicking. In some rare cases, tinnitus patients report hearing music. Tinnitus can be both an acute (temporary) condition or a chronic (ongoing) health malady.
Other causes of tinnitus include middle ear infections, disorders that block the ear canal (such as an external ear infection [external otitis], excessive ear wax, or foreign bodies), problems with the eustachian tube (which connects the middle ear and the back of the nose) due to allergies or other causes of obstruction, otosclerosis (a disorder of excess bone growth in the middle ear), and temporomandibular disorders. An uncommon but serious cause is an acoustic neuroma, a noncancerous (benign) tumor of part of the nerve leading from the inner ear.
Currently there is no cure for most cases of tinnitus. Depending on the type of tinnitus, symptoms will tend to come and go over time. Stress level, diet, and exposure to noise can worsen tinnitus. Many people find their tinnitus annoying but can learn to adapt without difficulty. It is likely that if you have had tinnitus, you will have it again in the future.
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.
It’s the same mechanism that’s happening in people who feel a phantom limb sensation after losing a limb, explains Susan Shore, PhD, a professor of otolaryngology, molecular physiology, and biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. With tinnitus the loss of hearing causes specific brain neurons to increase their activity as a way of compensating, she explains. “These neurons also synchronize their activity as they would if there were a sound there, but there is no external sound,” she adds.
The treatment group (245 patients) received some elements of standard care (such as a masking device and hearing aid if needed), but also received CBT. The CBT included an extensive educational session, sessions with a clinical psychologist and group treatments involving “psychological education” explaining their condition, cognitive restructuring, exposure techniques, stress relief, applied relaxation and movement therapy.
CBT could potentially help people with tinnitus deal with fears that their tinnitus might be caused by brain damage or might lead to deafness. During CBT, they might learn that the condition is common and that it is not associated with brain damage or deafness. They might also be exposed to the sound in a safe environment, so that it has less of an impact on their daily life. CBT also involves techniques such as applied relaxation and mindfulness training.
Seek treatment for hearing problems. If you’re experiencing difficulty hearing, talk to your physician and seek help from an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose throat specialist) or an audiologist. In addition to addressing any underlying health issue and improving your quality of life, improving your hearing can make tinnitus less noticeable and less bothersome, during the day and at night when you’re trying to sleep.
We conducted a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial investigating the effects of the customized music-based sound therapy for reducing tinnitus. Participants (N = 50) who suffered from tinnitus were randomly allocated (with 1:1 ratio) to the treatment and placebo groups with assessments at baseline, 3, 6, and 12 months. The primary outcome was the differences in mean scores of the THI compared at four time intervals. Independent and paired samples t-tests were conducted to compare THI scores between and within groups, respectively.
Tinnitus is a symptom, not a disease. Most cases are due to damage to the microscopic endings of the sensory nerve in the inner ear, commonly from exposure to loud noise (as from amplified music or gunfire). Other causes include allergy, high or low blood pressure, a tumor, diabetes, thyroid dysfunction, and head or neck injury. In addition, some drugs, including aspirin and other anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, sedatives, and antidepressants can also cause tinnitus. If so, changing drugs or lowering the dosage usually helps.
Glenn Schweitzer is an entrepreneur, blogger, and the author of Rewiring Tinnitus and Mind over Meniere’s. He is passionate about helping others who suffer from tinnitus and vestibular disorders and volunteers as an Ambassador Board Member for the Vestibular Disorders Association (VEDA). Through his blogs, he continues raise awareness for tinnitus, Meniere’s disease, and other vestibular disorders, spreading his message of hope to those in need.
Tinnitus can arise anywhere along the auditory pathway, from the outer ear through the middle and inner ear to the brain's auditory cortex, where it's thought to be encoded (in a sense, imprinted). One of the most common causes of tinnitus is damage to the hair cells in the cochlea (see "Auditory pathways and tinnitus"). These cells help transform sound waves into nerve signals. If the auditory pathways or circuits in the brain don't receive the signals they're expecting from the cochlea, the brain in effect "turns up the gain" on those pathways in an effort to detect the signal — in much the same way that you turn up the volume on a car radio when you're trying to find a station's signal. The resulting electrical noise takes the form of tinnitus — a sound that is high-pitched if hearing loss is in the high-frequency range and low-pitched if it's in the low-frequency range. This kind of tinnitus resembles phantom limb pain in an amputee — the brain is producing abnormal nerve signals to compensate for missing input.
Limit use of earplugs. Earplugs are important to use to protect your hearing when you’re likely to be exposed to loud noises. (Remember, exposure to loud sounds, and noise-induced hearing loss, are common causes of tinnitus, and may make tinnitus worse if you already have the condition.) But otherwise, people with tinnitus are advised not to wear earplugs, including for sleep. Earplugs reduce your ability to hear external noise and can make tinnitus more noticeable.
Even with all of these associated conditions and causes, some people develop tinnitus for no obvious reason. Most of the time, tinnitus isn’t a sign of a serious health problem, although if it’s loud or doesn’t go away, it can cause fatigue, depression, anxiety, and problems with memory and concentration. For some, tinnitus can be a source of real mental and emotional anguish.
Some instances of tinnitus are caused by infections or blockages in the ear, and the tinnitus can disappear once the underlying cause is treated. Frequently, however, tinnitus continues after the underlying condition is treated. In such a case, other therapies -- both conventional and alternative -- may bring significant relief by either decreasing or covering up the unwanted sound.