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.
Practice mindfulness meditation. I’ve written about the power of mindfulness mediation to reduce stress and improve sleep. A 2017 study found mindfulness meditation is also effective in helping people better manage tinnitus. Mindfulness meditation involves sitting comfortably, putting your attention on your natural breathing. When your mind wanders—to irritating tinnitus sounds, to worry about sleep, or wherever else it goes, gently return your attention to your breath. Start with a 5-minute session, and as you grow more comfortable with the practice, you can increase the time. You can practice mindfulness meditation anywhere, at any time of day—including in the shower!
Unfortunately that means tinnitus is a very complicated condition that involves several systems of the body. The good news, though, is that as doctors and researchers have developed a better understanding of the mechanisms behind tinnitus, they’ve also been able to develop new and promising treatments that target the brain rather than the ear — and have more of a chance of actually reversing the problem.
Most experts refer to tinnitus as the condition that causes ringing in the ears, however other abnormal sounds and sensations can also be attributed to tinnitus. The definition of tinnitus is “the perception of noise or ringing in the ears.” Some also describe this condition as “hearing sounds in the ears when no external sound is present.” Although tinnitus is only a significant problem for about 1 percent to 5 percent of the population, up to 10 percent to 15 percent of all children and adults are believed to experience ringing in the ears at least from time to time.
Most people should have a formal hearing test done by either the doctor or a hearing specialist (audiologist). People with tinnitus in only one ear and hearing loss should have gadolinium-enhanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). People with tinnitus in only one ear and normal hearing should have an MRI if tinnitus lasts more than 6 months. People with pulsatile tinnitus often require magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) and sometimes angiography.
Tinnitus sufferers most often cite stress as the cause of their condition. While it’s true noises are perceived more acutely when you are tense, there is no scientific basis for saying stress causes tinnitus. But the reverse is definitely true — hearing a constant noise in your ears can certainly cause stress and anxiety, and even lead to depression in some cases.
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.
The latest news about tinnitus treatment comes from a UK study showing that Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) significantly helps reduce the severity of the disorder. The researchers reported that, among the 75 patients being studied, both relaxation therapy and MBCT worked to alleviate symptoms as well as reducing psychological distress, anxiety and depression related to the disorder. MBCT led to greater reductions in tinnitus severity and the improvements lasted longer.
Persistent tinnitus may cause anxiety and depression. Tinnitus annoyance is more strongly associated with psychological condition than loudness or frequency range. Psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances and concentration difficulties are common in those with strongly annoying tinnitus. 45% of people with tinnitus have an anxiety disorder at some time in their life.
In addition to treating associated problems (such as depression or insomnia), there are several strategies that can help make tinnitus less bothersome. No single approach works for everyone, and you may need to try various combinations of techniques before you find what works for you. If you have age-related hearing loss, a hearing aid can often make tinnitus less noticeable by amplifying outside sounds.
Cartoon of the middle ear showing muscles that attach to ossicles (ear bones), and ear drum. The stapedius is attached to the stapes (of course -- horseshoe object above), while the tensor tympani is attached to the ear drum. While useful, be aware that there are multiple errors in this illustration from Loyola Medical School. With permission, from: http://www.meddean.luc.edu/lumen/meded/grossanatomy/dissector/mml/images/stap.jpg
Another way of splitting up tinnitus is into objective and subjective. Objective tinnitus can be heard by the examiner. Subjective cannot. Practically, as there is only a tiny proportion of the population with objective tinnitus, this method of categorizing tinnitus is rarely of any help. It seems to us that it should be possible to separate out tinnitus into inner ear vs everything else using some of the large array of audiologic testing available today. For example, it would seem to us that tinnitus should intrinsically "mask" sounds of the same pitch, and that this could be quantified using procedures that are "tuned" to the tinnitus.
Antidepressants are occasionally associated with tinnitus (Robinson, 2007). For example, Tandon (1987) reported that 1% of those taking imiprimine complained of tinnitus. In a double-blind trial of paroxetine for tinnitus, 3% discontinued due to a perceived worsening of tinnitus (Robinson, 2007). There are case reports concerning tinnitus as a withdrawal symptom from Venlafaxine and sertraline (Robinson, 2007). In our clinical practice, we have occasionally encountered patients reporting worsening of tinnitus with an antidepressant, generally in the SSRI family.
If the source of the problem remains unclear, you may be sent to an otologist or an otolaryngologist (both ear specialists) or an audiologist (a hearing specialist) for hearing and nerve tests. As part of your examination, you may be given a hearing test called an audiogram. An imaging technique, such as an MRI or a CT scan, may also be recommended to reveal any structural problem.