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).
Dr. Ben Wedro practices emergency medicine at Gundersen Clinic, a regional trauma center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His background includes undergraduate and medical studies at the University of Alberta, a Family Practice internship at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and residency training in Emergency Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
Tinnitus can be extremely frustrating and can leave you feeling overwhelmed and unsure about your next steps. Remember that you are not alone - tinnitus, while not well-understood, is common. Make an appointment with a hearing care professional near you, preferably one who specializes in tinnitus treatment. Be prepared to discuss your symptoms in detail so you can get relief and regain your quality of life.
Persistent tinnitus may cause anxiety and depression. Tinnitus annoyance is more strongly associated with psychological condition than loudness or frequency range. Psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances and concentration difficulties are common in those with strongly annoying tinnitus. 45% of people with tinnitus have an anxiety disorder at some time in their life.
Earwax (ear wax) is a natural substance secreted by special glands in the skin on the outer part of the ear canal. It repels water, and traps dust and sand particles. Usually a small amount of wax accumulates, dries up, and then falls out of the ear canal carrying with it unwanted particles. Under ideal circumstances, you should never have to clean your ear canals. The absence of ear wax may result in dry, itchy ears, and even infection. Ear wax may accumulate in the ear for a variety of reasons including; narrowing of the ear canal, production of less ear wax due to aging, or an overproduction of ear wax in response to trauma or blockage within the ear canal.
Tinnitus can arise anywhere along the auditory pathway, from the outer ear through the middle and inner ear to the brain's auditory cortex, where it's thought to be encoded (in a sense, imprinted). One of the most common causes of tinnitus is damage to the hair cells in the cochlea (see "Auditory pathways and tinnitus"). These cells help transform sound waves into nerve signals. If the auditory pathways or circuits in the brain don't receive the signals they're expecting from the cochlea, the brain in effect "turns up the gain" on those pathways in an effort to detect the signal — in much the same way that you turn up the volume on a car radio when you're trying to find a station's signal. The resulting electrical noise takes the form of tinnitus — a sound that is high-pitched if hearing loss is in the high-frequency range and low-pitched if it's in the low-frequency range. This kind of tinnitus resembles phantom limb pain in an amputee — the brain is producing abnormal nerve signals to compensate for missing input.
There are eight main causes of tinnitus that when avoided or removed from your life can help improve your tinnitus dramatically. Ironically, these 8 causes do not affect everyone in the same way. Some people will have no reaction to some of these tinnitus causes, while others will have a severe reaction. There’s no clear answer to why this is, but the condition is a growing one with one in five individuals who reach the age of fifty-five suffering from tinnitus.
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 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?
Tinnitus masking or noise suppression devices are common treatment options for tinnitus sufferers. This type of device is worn in the ear like a hearing aid and produces either a constant signal or tonal beats to compete with the sounds you're hearing. The hearing care professional will use the pitch matching and loudness matching tests to set the signal at a level and pitch similar to the tinnitus you are perceiving.
Widex employs fractal tone technology, so that the sounds you hear are predictable but not repeating. Your audiologist can choose between an assortment of “musical tones” known as “Zen styles,” which are random and chime-like. Your audiologist can adjust the tones’ pitch, tempo, and volume. If employed correctly, Widex Zen Therapy can help re-wire your brain and make your tinnitus less noticeable.
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.)
Antidepressants are occasionally associated with tinnitus (Robinson, 2007). For example, Tandon (1987) reported that 1% of those taking imiprimine complained of tinnitus. In a double-blind trial of paroxetine for tinnitus, 3% discontinued due to a perceived worsening of tinnitus (Robinson, 2007). There are case reports concerning tinnitus as a withdrawal symptom from Venlafaxine and sertraline (Robinson, 2007). In our clinical practice, we have occasionally encountered patients reporting worsening of tinnitus with an antidepressant, generally in the SSRI family.
The similarities between chronic pain and tinnitus have led researchers to develop a mindfulness-based tinnitus stress reduction (MBTSR) program. The results of a pilot study, which were published in The Hearing Journal, found that participants of an eight-week MBTSR program experienced significantly altered perceptions of their tinnitus. This included a reduction in depression and anxiety.
Research shows a frequent correlation between tinnitus and hearing loss. Because tinnitus is perceived differently by each sufferer, an exact diagnosis is essential. A doctor may conduct ENT, dental, orthodontic, and orthopedic examinations in order to establish whether a case can be medically treated or not. The pitch and volume of tinnitus can be determined by special diagnostic test, and a hearing test can reveal whether hearing loss is also involved. Treatment with hearing aids is often the first step to relief from tinnitus. Hearing aids compensate for hearing loss, which enables concentration on external sounds instead of internal noises.
Use other relaxation techniques. Tinnitus is understandably anxiety provoking, often a source of frustration and stress throughout the day and night. Reducing anxiety, and finding ways to relax, have benefits for both tinnitus and sleep. Relaxation exercises can reduce the aggravation of tinnitus, and make you more able to fall asleep. A few of the relaxation techniques my patients find most effective and easy to use are:
Seek out cognitive-behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, involves working with a clinician (or independently, with a clinically-developed self-treatment program) to re-frame negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. CBT is effective with a wide range of physical and mental health conditions, including stress, anxiety, and depression. CBT is also highly effective in treating insomnia and other sleep problems. And research shows CBT can help improve the management of tinnitus.
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.