Tinnitus (pronounced ti-ni-tis), or ringing in the ears, is the sensation of hearing ringing, buzzing, hissing, chirping, whistling, or other sounds. The noise can be intermittent or continuous, and can vary in loudness. It is often worse when background noise is low, so you may be most aware of it at night when you're trying to fall asleep in a quiet room. In rare cases, the sound beats in sync with your heart (pulsatile tinnitus).
Tinnitus is a common condition characterized by the perception or sensation of sound even though there is no identifiable external source for the sound. Tinnitus is often referred to as a “ringing in the ears.” However, the sounds associated with tinnitus have also been described as hissing, chirping, crickets, whooshing, or roaring sounds, amongst others, that can affect one or both ears. Tinnitus is generally broken down into two types: subjective and objective. Subjective tinnitus is very common and is defined as a sound that is audible only to the person with tinnitus. Subjective tinnitus is a purely electrochemical phenomenon and cannot be heard by an outside observer no matter how hard they try. Objective tinnitus, which is far less common, is defined as a sound that arises from an “objective” source, such as mechanical defect or a specific sound source, and can be heard by an outside observer under favorable conditions. The sounds from objective tinnitus occur somewhere within the body and reach the ears by conduction through various body tissues. Objective tinnitus is usually caused by disorders affecting the blood vessels (vascular system) or muscles (muscular system).
Health care professionals who incline to offer patients an option or strategy to deal with tinnitus are confronted with the variability inherent to this disorder.5 The cause of tinnitus can vary, although people who experience tinnitus have usually first developed hearing loss due to ageing or from exposure to loud noise that caused peripheral auditory damage. In fact, the number of tinnitus sufferers that develop the constant ringing due to hearing loss may be even higher than thought, as some tinnitus sufferers only appear to have normal hearing when thresholds at frequencies below 8 kHz are measured. Less frequently, tinnitus may also occur after a head or neck injury, or due to the presence of an acoustic neuroma. Certain medications may also contribute to the development of tinnitus through effects on hair cells in the inner ear or via mechanisms that are not yet well understood.6 This variety in cause has been the first part of the challenge in developing a “cure” or effective treatment for tinnitus. However, even for the largest group of tinnitus sufferers (those who may develop tinnitus due to hearing damage), effective treatments have been hard to come by.
The important thing to remember about tinnitus is that the brain’s response to these random electrical signals determines whether or not a person is annoyed by their tinnitus or not. Magnetoencephalography (MEG, for short) studies have been used to study tinnitus and the brain. MEG takes advantage of the fact that every time neurons send each other signals, their electric current creates a tiny magnetic field. MEG allows scientists to detect such changing patterns of activity in the brain 100 times per second. These studies indicated tinnitus affects the entire brain and helps with understanding why certain therapies are more effective than others.
According to the American Tinnitus Association, most cases of tinnitus are caused by hearing loss. Occasionally though, tinnitus is caused by an irritation to the auditory system. Tinnitus can sometimes be a symptom of a problem with the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). If your tinnitus is caused by TMJ, then a dental procedure or realignment of your bite may alleviate the problem.
The outlook for tinnitus depends on its cause. In people with tinnitus related to earwax buildup or medications, the condition usually will go away when the earwax is removed or the medication is stopped. In people with tinnitus related to sudden, loud noise, tinnitus may improve gradually, although there may be some permanent noise-related hearing loss.
There seems to be a two-way-street relationship between tinnitus and sleep problems. The symptoms of tinnitus can interfere with sleeping well—and poor sleep can make tinnitus more aggravating and difficult to manage effectively. In the same study that found a majority of people with tinnitus had a sleep disorder, the scientists also found that the presence of sleep disorders made tinnitus more disruptive.
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.
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