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.
Tinnitus (pronounced "tin-it-tus") is an abnormal noise in the ear (note that it is not an "itis" -- which means inflammation). Tinnitus is common -- nearly 36 million Americans have constant tinnitus and more than half of the normal population has intermittent tinnitus. Another way to summarize this is that about 10-15% of the entire population has some type of constant tinnitus, and about 20% of these people (i.e. about 1% of the population) seek medical attention (Adjamian et al, 2009). Similar statistics are found in England (Dawes et al, 2014) and Korea (Park and Moon, 2014).
Sound therapies are one method that has previously been shown to reduce the severity of tinnitus. While not all sound therapies have gone through rigorous clinical testing, they have far greater traction and adoption in the tinnitus community. There are two types of sound therapy approaches: (1) maskers that are intended to block out the tinnitus and have the patient learn to ignore their tinnitus, and (2) sound therapies that utilize the same brain plasticity that is thought to be causing the tinnitus for the purpose of reducing it. Both approaches can be delivered via electronic devices that can produce sound. There has been an increase in tinnitus maskers that are built into hearing aids. These built-in maskers generate different sounds including white noise and random tones. Unfortunately, due to their design, hearing aids are still limited to providing masking at frequencies below 8 kHz.
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.
A loud work environment. A loud work environment that involves the use of power tools, power saws, drills or other noisy equipment may cause temporary bouts of tinnitus. I know of many tinnitus suffers who have attended rock concerts and left with ringing in their ears that may take hours or even days to subside. The longer a person remains in that loud environment, the better their chances will be of developing the condition permanently. These environments can also cause hearing loss. Always wear earplugs when you are in a loud environment, even if it is only going to be for a short time. Mowing the lawn? Wear earplugs.
This personalized solution offers a selection of tinnitus relief sounds to support common management approaches. The flexible programming provides sound stimulation through select auditory options that can ease the effects of tinnitus. The sounds offer a variety of customized options and are used in conjunction with tinnitus retraining therapy to provide instructional counseling.
Until recently, most tinnitus patients had little reason to believe doctors would ever be able to completely cure or reverse the affliction. Drug therapies had consistently failed, and so had more invasive procedures — including some surgeries to remove the auditory nerve that transmits sound from the ear to the brain, according to past research. (1,2)
Tinnitus usually comes in the form of a high-pitched tone in one or both ears, but can also sound like a clicking, roaring or whooshing sound. While tinnitus isn't fully understood, it is known to be a sign that something is wrong in the auditory system: the ear, the auditory nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain, or the parts of the brain that process sound. Something as simple as a piece of earwax blocking the ear canal can cause tinnitus, but it can also arise from a number of health conditions. For example, when sensory cells in the inner ear are damaged from loud noise, the resulting hearing loss changes some of the signals in the brain to cause tinnitus.
Though the exact cause of tinnitus — as in the specific mechanism that creates these phantom sounds in some people — remains unknown, contributing factors and triggers have been identified. Excessive exposure to loud noise is often a factor because of the damage done to your auditory system. Tinnitus may also result from jaw-joint dysfunction (e.g., teeth grinding, temporomandibular joint disorder) or chronic neck muscle strain.
With respect to incidence (the table above is about prevalence), Martinez et al (2015) reported that there were 5.4 new cases of tinnitus per 10,000 person-years in England. We don't find this statistic much use as tinnitus is highly prevalent in otherwise normal persons. It seems to us that their study is more about how many persons with tinnitus were detected by the health care system -- and that it is more a study of England's health care system than of tinnitus.
Masking Devices. Similar to the white noise machines listed above, there are now masking devices that can be worn in the ear, just like a hearing aid, that do almost the same thing. They produce low-level white noise that can suppresses your tinnitus symptoms by training your brain to focus on them instead of the ringing in your ears. These are perfect if you can’t always have a white noise machine running near you.
Therefore, the Department of Defense and Congress have taken an interest in furthering tinnitus research, adding it to a list of researchable conditions that impact the military. Both American Tinnitus Association and the Department of Defense fund tinnitus research. New research developments are reported in journals such as Tinnitus Today and the International Tinnitus Journal.
Assessment of psychological processes related to tinnitus involves measurement of tinnitus severity and distress (i.e., nature and extent of tinnitus-related problems), measured subjectively by validated self-report tinnitus questionnaires. These questionnaires measure the degree of psychological distress and handicap associated with tinnitus, including effects on hearing, lifestyle, health and emotional functioning. A broader assessment of general functioning, such as levels of anxiety, depression, stress, life stressors and sleep difficulties, is also important in the assessment of tinnitus due to higher risk of negative well-being across these areas, which may be affected by or exacerbate the tinnitus symptoms for the individual. Overall, current assessment measures are aimed to identify individual levels of distress and interference, coping responses and perceptions of tinnitus in order to inform treatment and monitor progress. However, wide variability, inconsistencies and lack of consensus regarding assessment methodology are evidenced in the literature, limiting comparison of treatment effectiveness. Developed to guide diagnosis or classify severity, most tinnitus questionnaires have been shown to be treatment-sensitive outcome measures.
If cerumen (more commonly known as ear wax) accumulates in your ear canal, it can diminish your ability to hear. Your auditory system may overcompensate for the loss, fabricating noises that do not exist. Your audiologist can safely remove the buildup, and in most cases, this will immediately alleviate your tinnitus. However, sometimes ear wax buildup causes permanent damage, resulting in chronic tinnitus.
People with warning signs should see a doctor right away. People without warning signs in whom tinnitus recently developed should call their doctor, as should people with pulsatile tinnitus. Most people with tinnitus and no warning signs have had tinnitus for a long time. They can discuss the matter with their doctor and be seen at a mutually convenient time.
Don’t ignore ear pain. Pain or discomfort in your ear can be a sign of conditions associated with tinnitus, including ear infections and earwax buildup. These conditions, and the discomfort they cause, can also interfere with sleep. Whether your ear pain is sharp or dull, constant or intermittent, accompanied by itching or not, take these symptoms to your doctor.
Ototoxic drugs can also cause subjective tinnitus, as they may cause hearing loss, or increase the damage done by exposure to loud noise. Those damages can occur even at doses that are not considered ototoxic. Over 260 medications have been reported to cause tinnitus as a side effect. In many cases, however, no underlying cause could be identified.
None of these treatment options are supported by science. Many people are convinced that the herb gingko biloba is helpful, however large-scale studies have been unable to prove this. There are many nutritional supplements claiming to be tinnitus remedies. These are usually a combination of herbs and vitamins, often including zinc, ginkgo, and vitamin B-12.
Tinnitus is associated with a high level of emotional stress. Depression, anxiety, and insomnia are not uncommon in people with tinnitus. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that helps people with tinnitus learn to live with their condition. Rather than reducing the sound itself, CBT teaches you how to accept it. The goal is to improve your quality of life and prevent tinnitus from driving you crazy.
One of the big problems associated with curing tinnitus, experts say, is that it’s really a symptom of multiple conditions, as opposed to being a single condition with a predictable trigger. In fact, more than 200 different conditions — problems ranging from hearing loss to head or neck trauma — have been linked with tinnitus, which makes it a real bear to try to stop. (3)
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.
The degree of loudness or annoyance caused by tinnitus varies greatly from one individual to another. Loudness and annoyance do not always covary. An individual with loud tinnitus may not be troubled, while an individual with soft tinnitus may be debilitated. Most individuals with subjective tinnitus have hearing loss that shows up in a standard clinical audiogram. Tinnitus can sometimes worsen or sometimes improve over time.
Repeated loud noise exposure can be a cause of tinnitus as well as hearing loss. Loud music may cause short term symptoms, but repeated occupational exposure (for example, musicians, factory and construction workers) requires less intense sound levels to cause potential hearing damage leading to tinnitus. Minimizing sound exposure, therefore, decreases the risk of developing tinnitus. Sound protection equipment, like acoustic ear-muffs, may be appropriate at work and at home when exposed to loud noises.
Like Shore and Kilgard’s work, most of the promising research on tinnitus has to do with stimulating or altering the brain’s hyperactivity in ways that reduce tinnitus. Some studies have shown electromagnetic brain stimulation — using either invasive or noninvasive techniques, including procedures that involve surgically implanted electrodes or scalp electrodes — may help reverse a patient’s tinnitus. (6) While none of these treatment options are currently available, all have shown some success in treating the condition.
Supporting the idea that central reorganization is overestimated as "the" cause of tinnitus, a recent study by Wineland et al showed no changes in central connectivity of auditory cortex or other key cortical regions (Wineland et al, 2012). Considering other parts of the brain, Ueyama et al (2013) reported that there was increased fMRI activity in the bilateral rectus gyri, as well as cingulate gyri correlating with distress. Loudness was correlated with values in the thalamus, bilateral hippocampus and left caudate. In other words, the changes in the brain associated with tinnitus seem to be associated with emotional reaction (e.g. cingulate), and input systems (e.g. thalamus). There are a few areas whose role is not so obvious (e.g. caudate). This makes a more sense than the Wineland result, but of course, they were measuring different things. MRI studies related to audition or dizziness must be interpreted with great caution as the magnetic field of the MRI stimulates the inner ear, and because MRI scanners are noisy.
As a hearing healthcare provider, I regularly get asked about a cure for tinnitus. Trust me, if there was one, I would be using it! I have had tinnitus for more than seven years. It makes it hard to sleep, to concentrate, to read a book. Basically, anything that is normally done in quiet became a struggle for me. (To see how tinnitus is affecting you, take our free tinnitus test.)
When TRT was developed in the 1980s by neuroscientist Dr. Pawel Jastreboff (now at Emory University in Atlanta), it was designed to be administered according to a strict protocol. Today, the term TRT is being used to describe modified versions of this therapy, and the variations make accurate assessment of its effectiveness difficult. Individual studies have reported improvements in as many as 80% of patients with high-pitched tinnitus. In a Cochrane review of the one randomized trial that followed Jastreboff's protocol and met the organization's standards, TRT was much more effective in reducing tinnitus severity and disability than a technique called masking (see below).
Don't give up on things unless you are sure they are having some effect, especially if it's something you enjoy; or you could end up feeling miserable and deprived for no reason. Do not give up several things at once, or you will not know which one was affecting your tinnitus. If you decide to limit these things and fancy the occasional treat, maybe try using the other strategies (such as relaxation) for those times when your tinnitus is a bit louder. For more details, see our information on Food, drink and tinnitus.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT uses techniques such as cognitive restructuring and relaxation to change the way patients think about and respond to tinnitus. Patients usually keep a diary and perform "homework" to help build their coping skills. Therapy is generally short-term — for example, weekly sessions for two to six months. A 2010 review of six studies by the Cochrane Collaboration (an international group of health authorities who evaluate randomized trials) found that after CBT, the sound was no less loud, but it was significantly less bothersome, and patients' quality of life improved.