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).
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.
CBT involves working with a therapist or counselor, typically once per week, to identify and change negative thought patterns. CBT was initially developed as a treatment for depression and other psychological problems, but it seems to work well for people with tinnitus. Several studies and meta-reviews, including one published in the Korean Journal of Audiology, have found that CBT significantly improves irritation and annoyance that often comes with tinnitus.
Subjective tinnitus is the most frequent type of tinnitus. It can have many possible causes, but most commonly it results from hearing loss. When the tinnitus is caused by disorders of the inner ear or auditory nerve it is called otic (from the Greek word for ear). These otological or neurological conditions include those triggered by infections or drugs. A frequent cause is noise exposure that damages hair cells in the inner ear.
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.
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.
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.
Your doctor will try to determine what is causing the condition. If it is not due to a medication side effect or a general medical condition (such as high blood pressure), he or she may refer you to an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat doctor) or an audiologist (hearing specialist). It is especially important to see an otolaryngologist if you experience tinnitus in only one ear, tinnitus that sounds like your heartbeat or pulse (pulsatile tinnitus), tinnitus with sudden or fluctuating hearing loss, pressure or fullness in one or both ears, and/or dizziness or balance problems. Unless the cause of the tinnitus is obvious on physical examination, a hearing test is usually required.
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