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.
Generally, following the initial evaluation, individuals suspected of rhythmic tinnitus will undergo some form of specialized medical imaging. Individuals may undergo high resolution computed tomography (HRCT) or magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) to evaluate blood vessel abnormalities such as a vascular malformation that may be the cause of tinnitus. An HRCT scan can also be used to evaluate the temporal bone for sinus wall abnormalities and superior semicircular canal dehiscence. HRCT uses a narrow x-ray beam and advanced computer analysis to create highly detailed images of structures within the body such as blood vessels. An MRA is done with the same equipment use for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI uses a magnetic field and radio waves to produce cross-sectional images of particular structures or tissues within the body. An MRA provides detailed information about blood vessels. In some cases, before the scan, an intravenous line is inserted into a vein to release a special dye (contrast). This contrast highlights the blood vessels, thereby enhancing the results of the scan.
Pulsatile tinnitus is a rare type of tinnitus that sounds like a rhythmic pulsing in the ear, usually in time with your heartbeat. A doctor may be able to hear it by pressing a stethoscope against your neck or by placing a tiny microphone inside the ear canal. This kind of tinnitus is most often caused by problems with blood flow in the head or neck. Pulsatile tinnitus also may be caused by brain tumors or abnormalities in brain structure.
Tinnitus can be triggered by a variety of different causes, and it varies dramatically from person to person. Some of the causes result in permanent tinnitus that may require treatment, while others result in temporary tinnitus that disappears on its own. Common causes of tinnitus include hearing loss, wax buildup, stress, exposure to loud noises, certain disorders, and certain medications. To learn more about the various causes of tinnitus, check out our page What Causes Tinnitus?
Being exposed to loud noise on a regular basis from heavy equipment, chain saws or firearms are common causes of hearing loss and tinnitus. Noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus can also be caused by listening to loud music through headphones or attending loud concerts frequently. It is possible to experience short-term tinnitus after seeing a concert, but long-term exposure will cause permanent damage.
We encourage you to avoid anything that can make your tinnitus worse. For instance, you may want to avoid smoking, drinking alcohol, or listening to loud noises. Another precaution is protection. If you’re a construction worker, airport worker, hunter, or regularly exposed to loud noise, you should wear custom earplugs or special earmuffs. Ear protection goes a long way towards preventing your tinnitus from getting worse.
A wealth of research has gone into understanding the mechanisms of tinnitus due to the increased concern in our ageing and noise exposed society through the support of organizations such as the Tinnitus Research Institute, the American Tinnitus Association and even the US Department of Defense. This research has helped us to understand not only why and how this phantom percept can develop, but also sheds light on why it may sound like a hiss for one person and a high pitched tone for another.7 In addition, neuroscientists have shown connections between the limbic system (where emotions are processed) and the auditory system; it is not uncommon for tinnitus to increase during times of stress or negative emotions.5 As such, the effective tinnitus treatment strategies should be enjoyable and positive, and should account for the variability in what tinnitus sounds like for each patient.
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
Tinnitus can vary a lot between individuals; therefore you can find many different types of tinnitus. Tinnitus varies considerably in intensity and type. Some people describe tinnitus as high-frequency whistling sounds while others perceive tinnitus as a buzzing noise or a sound similar to butter sizzling in a frying pan. But some experience, instead, a thumping sound in the same rhythm as their heartbeat. This is called pulsatile tinnitus. Read more about the types of tinnitus.
Tinnitus habituation therapies, such as tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT), involve using low level sounds in a graduated fashion to decrease the perception of tinnitus. This differs from use of masking devices such as described earlier. TRT involves a wearable device that an affected individual can adjust so that the level of sound emitting from the device is about equal to or matches the tinnitus sound. This may be called the “mixing point” because the sound from the device and the tinnitus sound begin to mix together. An affected individual must repeatedly adjust the device so that the sound is at or just below the mixing point. TRT is supported by counseling with a trained professional who can teach the individual the proper techniques to maximize the effectiveness of TRT. Eventually, by following this method, affected individuals no longer need the external sound generating device. Affected individuals will become accustomed to the tinnitus sound (habituation), except when they choose to focus on it. Even then the sound will not be bothersome or troubling. The theory is akin to a person’s ability to ignore sounds such as the hum of air conditioner, the refrigerator motor turning on, or raindrops falling on the roof when driving a car in the rain.
FACT: Many people with tinnitus will also have a hearing loss. In fact, a recent French study showed that of 123 people with tinnitus surveyed only one did not have hearing loss. The British Tinnitus Association estimates that 90 percent of people with tinnitus also have a hearing loss. Moreover, research says that those who don’t may have a “hidden hearing loss.”
Tinnitus is the name for hearing a sound that is not physically present in the environment. Some researchers have also described tinnitus as a “phantom auditory perception.” People with tinnitus most often describe it as ringing, buzzing, cricket sounds, humming, and whooshing, although many other descriptions have been used. To hear some sound samples access the American Tinnitus Association website, where they have put together files of different manifestations of tinnitus to listen to for education purposes.
Sound-masking devices provide a pleasant or benign external noise that partially drowns out the internal sound of tinnitus. The traditional sound-masking device is a tabletop sound machine, but there are also small electronic devices that fit in the ear. These devices can play white noise, pink noise, nature noises, music, or other ambient sounds. Most people prefer a level of external sound that is just slightly louder than their tinnitus, but others prefer a masking sound that completely drowns out the ringing.
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.