Tinnitus (pronounced tih-NITE-us or TIN-ih-tus) is sound in the head with no external source. For many, it's a ringing sound, while for others, it's whistling, buzzing, chirping, hissing, humming, roaring, or even shrieking. The sound may seem to come from one ear or both, from inside the head, or from a distance. It may be constant or intermittent, steady or pulsating.
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.
If you develop tinnitus, it's important to see your clinician. She or he will take a medical history, give you a physical examination, and do a series of tests to try to find the source of the problem. She or he will also ask you to describe the noise you're hearing (including its pitch and sound quality, and whether it's constant or periodic, steady or pulsatile) and the times and places in which you hear it. Your clinician will review your medical history, your current and past exposure to noise, and any medications or supplements you're taking. Tinnitus can be a side effect of many medications, especially when taken at higher doses (see "Some drugs that can cause or worsen tinnitus").
Tinnitus is a non-curable, invisible and debilitating hearing disorder that can take on many different forms – ringing, hissing, buzzing, and even the sound of crickets. Almost everyone has experienced brief periods of mild tinnitus, but for many, this sound can be permanent. Over 360,000 Canadians report suffering from chronic tinnitus, and almost half of those are severely affected.1 In the US, over 16 million tinnitus sufferers seek treatment every year.2 Tinnitus is the number one disability claim for US veterans3 and has also become the top disability claim for current and former male RCMP members.4 This persistent sound can have a serious impact on quality of life; leading to sleep deprivation, depression, anxiety, and even suicide. What adds to the challenges faced by tinnitus sufferers is a lack of knowledge, support and options available to them. Unfortunately, there are currently too few health care professionals providing services to tinnitus sufferers who are seeking ways to manage their tinnitus. Unfortunately, the phrase “learn to live with it” is still heard far too often by those that seek help for tinnitus.
Counseling helps you learn how to live with your tinnitus. Most counseling programs have an educational component to help you understand what goes on in the brain to cause tinnitus. Some counseling programs also will help you change the way you think about and react to your tinnitus. You might learn some things to do on your own to make the noise less noticeable, to help you relax during the day, or to fall asleep at night.
Shelly-Anne Li is the VP of clinical research and operations at Sound Options Tinnitus Treatments Inc. As a research methodology consultant for various projects, she brings expertise in health research methods, as well as experience from conducting multi-site randomized controlled trials, mixed methods studies and qualitative research. Shelly-Anne Li is currently a PhD candidate at University of Toronto, and obtained her MSc (health sciences) from McMaster University.
The exact biological process by which hearing loss is associated with tinnitus is still being investigated by researchers. However, we do know that the loss of certain sound frequencies leads to specific changes in how the brain processes sound. In short, as the brain receives less external stimuli around a specific frequency, it begins to adapt and change. Tinnitus may be the brain’s way of filling in the missing sound frequencies it no longer receives from the auditory system.
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.
In Canada, the level of funding or engagement towards tackling the problem of tinnitus is comparably minimal. But with recent headlines about the effects of tinnitus on those in police forces2 and frustration among veterans, this may change. Because of the progress made in tinnitus treatment and management research – including work done right here in Canada – the time is right to offer tinnitus sufferers effective options and the support they need. While many with tinnitus are not yet aware that there are ways to reduce or manage the constant ringing, hissing or buzzing in their ears, as more health care professionals make effective options available, word will spread. In time, tinnitus and its impact on quality of life can be reduced.
If you experience tinnitus, don’t suffer in silence. The ringing, roaring, buzzing, or hissing in your ears may be interfering with your sleep, your relaxation, and your enjoyment of life. Why let tinnitus control your life? Many effective treatments for tinnitus exist these days – treatments based on solid research that have proven effective and benefited many people. With help from a tinnitus treatment expert, you could finally silence the tinnitus that has perturbed you for years.
Tinnitus affects males and females in equal numbers. It can affect individuals of any age, even children. Tinnitus, collectively, is a very common condition and estimated to affect approximately 10% of the general population. Rhythmic tinnitus occurs far less frequently than non-rhythmic tinnitus, accounting for approximately 1% of all cases of tinnitus and is considered relatively rare in the general population. The exact prevalence or incidence of rhythmic tinnitus is unknown. Rhythmic tinnitus due to pseudotumor and sinus wall anomalies is found most commonly in overweight women in their 3rd to 6th decade of life. The onset of tinnitus can be abrupt or develop slowly over time.
Antidepressants. Antidepressants, such as nortriptyline and amitriptyline, have been used as mood enhancers to help someone with tinnitus cope with the life changing implications and complications it brings. However, they are often only prescribed in the most severe of tinnitus cases as they carry some serious side effects that might not make them worth taking for everyone. These include blurred vision, heart problems, dry mouth and constipation.
Often people bring in very long lists of medications that have been reported, once or twice, to be associated with tinnitus. This unfortunate behavior makes it very hard to care for these patients -- as it puts one into an impossible situation where the patient is in great distress but is also unwilling to attempt any treatment. Specialists who care for patients with ear disease, usually know very well which drugs are problems (such as those noted above), and which ones are nearly always safe.
Most people who seek medical help for tinnitus experience it as subjective, constant sound like constant ringing in the ears or a buzzing sound in the ear, and most have some degree of hearing loss. Things that cause hearing loss (and tinnitus) include loud noise, medications that damage the nerves in the ear (ototoxic drugs), impacted earwax, middle ear problems (such as infections and vascular tumors), and aging. Tinnitus can also be a symptom of Meniere's disease, a disorder of the balance mechanism in the inner ear.
A common cause of tinnitus is inner ear hair cell damage. Tiny, delicate hairs in your inner ear move in relation to the pressure of sound waves. This triggers cells to release an electrical signal through a nerve from your ear (auditory nerve) to your brain. Your brain interprets these signals as sound. If the hairs inside your inner ear are bent or broken, they can "leak" random electrical impulses to your brain, causing tinnitus.