Tinnitus is the perception of sound when no actual external noise or sound is present. It is often referred to as “ringing” in the ears. I have even heard some people call it “head noises.” While ringing sounds are very common, many people will describe the sound they hear as buzzing, hissing, whistling, swooshing, and clicking. In some rare cases, tinnitus patients report hearing music. I hear about 2,000 crickets all going at once!
The diagnosis of tinnitus is usually based on the person's description. A number of questionnaires exist that may help to assess how much tinnitus is interfering with a person's life. The diagnosis is commonly supported by an audiogram and a neurological examination. If certain problems are found, medical imaging, such as with MRI, may be performed. Other tests are suitable when tinnitus occurs with the same rhythm as the heartbeat. Rarely, the sound may be heard by someone else using a stethoscope, in which case it is known as objective tinnitus. Spontaneous otoacoustic emissions, which are sounds produced normally by the inner ear, may also occasionally result in tinnitus.
While there may be a wide range of causes, an important underlying factor for the development of tinnitus is brain plasticity.5,7 This property allows the brain to change and adapt, and it is essential to how we learn. Unfortunately, in some cases, such as with hearing loss, the auditory part of the brain may be altered as brain plasticity tries to compensate for the abnormal auditory inputs. This response leads to changes in brain activity in the auditory system (e.g., the auditory cortex) that can create a phantom percept: tinnitus. As such, while tinnitus may begin a problem at the auditory periphery, it persists because of changes throughout the auditory system. Treating tinnitus may require addressing both the initiator (e.g., hearing loss) and the driver (changes in the auditory brain).
Individuals with tinnitus describe perceiving a wide variety of sounds including ringing, clicking, hissing, humming, chirping, buzzing, whistling, whooshing, roaring, and/or whirling. These sounds may be present at all times, or they may come and go. The volume, pitch or quality of tinnitus sounds can fluctuate as well. Some people report that their tinnitus is most obvious when outside sounds are low (i.e. during the night). Other individuals describe their tinnitus as loud even in the presence of external sounds or noise, and some describe it as exacerbated by sounds. Tinnitus can affect one ear or both ears. It can also sound like it is inside the head and not in the ears at all.
When there does not seem to be a connection with a disorder of the inner ear or auditory nerve, the tinnitus is called nonotic (i.e. not otic). In some 30% of tinnitus cases, the tinnitus is influenced by the somatosensory system, for instance people can increase or decrease their tinnitus by moving their face, head, or neck. This type is called somatic or craniocervical tinnitus, since it is only head or neck movements that have an effect.
Tinnitus is commonly described as a ringing in the ears, but it also can sound like roaring, clicking, hissing, or buzzing. It may be soft or loud, high pitched or low pitched. You might hear it in either one or both ears. Roughly 10 percent of the adult population of the United States has experienced tinnitus lasting at least five minutes in the past year. This amounts to nearly 25 million Americans.
Tinnitus (pronounced tin-NY-tus or TIN-u-tus) is not a disease. It is a symptom that something is wrong in the auditory system, which includes the ear, the auditory nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain, and 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 be the result of a number of health conditions, such as:
Hyperactivity and deep brain stimulation. Researchers have observed hyperactivity in neural networks after exposing the ear to intense noise. Understanding specifically where in the brain this hyperactivity begins and how it spreads to other areas could lead to treatments that use deep brain stimulation to calm the neural networks and reduce tinnitus.
Ringing-in-the-ears or a fullness-of-the-head sensation are the most common symptoms of tinnitus. While ringing is the most common experience, the noise can also sound like a buzzing, hissing or whizzing sound. It can range from a low pitch to a high pitch and may be soft or loud at times. For some, tinnitus seems to get louder at night, just before sleep when no other sounds are competing with it. Tinnitus can remain constant or come and go intermittently. In severe cases, the ringing in the ears is loud enough to interfere with work or daily activity, whereas those with mild tinnitus can experience soft ringing that is no more than a minor annoyance.