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.
In many cases, tinnitus is caused by hyperactivity (or too much activity) in the brain’s auditory cortex. “When there’s damage or a loss of input in the ear [such as hearing loss, head trauma, or a blood vessel problem], the brain tries to turn up certain channels in order to compensate,” Dr. Kilgard explains. When the brain doesn’t get that tuning quite right, the result is tinnitus.
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.
There are two types of tinnitus: subjective tinnitus and objective tinnitus. Tinnitus is usually subjective, meaning that there is no sound detectable by other means. Subjective tinnitus has also been called "tinnitus aurium", "non-auditory" or "non-vibratory" tinnitus. In very rare cases tinnitus can be heard by someone else using a stethoscope, and in less rare – but still uncommon – cases it can be measured as a spontaneous otoacoustic emission (SOAE) in the ear canal. In such cases it is objective tinnitus, also called "pseudo-tinnitus" or "vibratory" tinnitus.
Medication. Some medications are known to be ototoxic while others list tinnitus as a side effect without causing permanent damage to the ear structures. New medications come out so often that it is difficult to maintain an up to date listing; another option, if you are experiencing tinnitus and are curious if it could be your medication, is to talk to your pharmacist or look up your specific prescriptions online through a website such as www.drugs.com. You should never stop a medication without consulting with your physician, even if you think it may be contributing to your tinnitus.
The important thing to remember about tinnitus is that the brain’s response to these random electrical signals determines whether or not a person is annoyed by their tinnitus or not. Magnetoencephalography (MEG, for short) studies have been used to study tinnitus and the brain. MEG takes advantage of the fact that every time neurons send each other signals, their electric current creates a tiny magnetic field. MEG allows scientists to detect such changing patterns of activity in the brain 100 times per second. These studies indicated tinnitus affects the entire brain and helps with understanding why certain therapies are more effective than others.
Note however that tinnitus nearly always consists of fairly simple sounds -- for example, hearing someone talking that no one else can hear would not ordinarily be called tinnitus -- this would be called an auditory hallucination. Musical hallucinations in patients without psychiatric disturbance is most often described in older persons, years after hearing loss.
Muscular tinnitus can be caused by several degenerative diseases that affect the head and neck including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or multiple sclerosis. Myoclonus can also cause muscular tinnitus, especially palatal myoclonus, which is characterized by abnormal contractions of the muscles of the roof of the mouth. Spasms of the stapedial muscle (which attaches to the stapes bone or stirrup), which is the smallest muscle in the body, and tensor tympani muscle, both of which are located in the middle ear, have also been associated with objective tinnitus. Myoclonus or muscle spasms may be caused by an underlying disorder such as a tumor, tissue death caused by lack of oxygen (infarction), or degenerative disease, but it is most commonly a benign and self-limiting problem.
Avoid a too-quiet bedroom. People with tinnitus may find it easier to sleep in a less quiet bedroom, and may benefit from white noise or other sleep-friendly sounds that help mask and minimize their tinnitus. To my patients who are looking to introduce soothing sounds to their sleep environment, I recommend the iHome Zenergy Sleep System, which combines relaxing sounds with aromatherapy and sleep-promoting light therapy.
Tinnitus affects every layer of society, and there has been increasing support for awareness. Recently, musicians who are affected by tinnitus have come together to create awareness for the disorder. Artists including Chris Martin of Coldplay and Black Eyed Peas have created a compilation album to help raise funds towards finding a cure for tinnitus. In the United States, the Department of Defense has invested millions of dollars into investigations of tinnitus sound therapies. In addition, the American Tinnitus Association makes efforts to lobby the US government to provide support for tinnitus sufferers.
Millions of Americans experience tinnitus, often to a debilitating degree, making it one of the most common health conditions in the country. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that nearly 15% of the general public — over 50 million Americans — experience some form of tinnitus. Roughly 20 million people struggle with burdensome chronic tinnitus, while 2 million have extreme and debilitating cases.1