Tinnitus can be extremely disturbing to people who have it. In many cases it is not a serious health problem, but rather a nuisance that may go away. However, some people with tinnitus may require medical or surgical treatment. Sixteen million Americans seek medical treatment each year for tinnitus, and about one-quarter of those experience it so severely it interferes with their daily activities.
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.
To understand what causes tinnitus, you first need to understand what tinnitus is. Tinnitus is, very simply, unexplainable noises you hear in your head when there is no actual sound present. A person with tinnitus will often hear a whistling, humming, buzzing, whooshing, clicking or ringing in their ears, even when there is nothing in the area that is emitting that particular sound. It may be intermittent or last only a short time or never seem to stop.
The cause of tinnitus may be difficult to determine. Your doctor will ask if you have been exposed to loud noise at work or home and will ask about medications you take, including all herbs and supplements. He or she may look in your ears to see if you have wax blockage or if the eardrum appears abnormal. If your hearing is affected, then your doctor may have you undergo a hearing test called an audiogram to measure your hearing ability in each ear.
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.
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.
Changes in the bones of the middle ear. A person’s ear is made up of several different bones: the malleus, Incus and Stapes. In some individuals, these bones may actually change shape or harden over the years. This process is known as otosclerosis and often runs in the family. This can cause ringing in the ears to begin or, if it has already started, to get worse over time.
Removing Excess Earwax. There is a small chance that your tinnitus is being caused by an excess build up of ear wax that is blocking the ear canal. This is especially common in older patients who have a lot of ear hair that ear wax has been building up on over the years. By removing both the excess hair and ear wax, especially if it’s in contact with your ear drum, your tinnitus can improve.
A large, 2014 study of almost 14,000 people found obstructive sleep apnea was linked to significantly higher rates of hearing impairment and hearing loss. Scientists think one reason for this is changes to blood flow to the ear that result in inflammation. (We know that sleep apnea causes changes to circulation and weakens blood flow to some areas of the body, including the brain.) A related factor? People with sleep apnea are at greater risk for high blood pressure, and high blood pressure can exacerbate hearing loss, according to research.
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.
Acoustic neural stimulation is a relatively new technique for people whose tinnitus is very loud or won’t go away. It uses a palm-sized device and headphones to deliver a broadband acoustic signal embedded in music. The treatment helps stimulate change in the neural circuits in the brain, which eventually desensitizes you to the tinnitus. The device has been shown to be effective in reducing or eliminating tinnitus in a significant number of study volunteers.
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.
Schecklmann et al (2014) suggested that tinnitus is associated with alterations in motor cortex excitability, by pooling several studies, and reported that there are differences in intracortical inhibition, intra-cortical facilitation, and cortical silent period. We doubt that this means that motor cortex excitability causes tinnitus, but rather we suspect that these findings reflect features of brain organization that may predispose certain persons to develop tinnitus over someone else.
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