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).
Pulsatile tinnitus is generally caused by abnormalities or disorders affecting the blood vessels (vascular disorders), especially the blood vessels near or around the ears. Such abnormalities or disorders can cause a change in the blood flow through the affected blood vessels. The blood vessels could be weakened from damage caused by hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis). For example, abnormalities affecting the carotid artery, the main artery serving the brain, can be associated with pulsatile tinnitus. A rare cause of pulsatile tinnitus is a disorder known as fibromuscular dysplasia (FMD), a condition characterized by abnormal development of the arterial wall. When the carotid artery is affected by FMD, pulsatile tinnitus can develop.
About 25-30 million Americans have tinnitus as a condition, and they experience these noises on a regular, most often daily, basis. About 40 percent of people with tinnitus hear tinnitus noise through 80 percent of their day. And for a smaller group of people—about 1 in 5, tinnitus is disruptive enough to significantly interfere with daily functioning, becoming disabling or nearly disabling.
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.
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?
If you develop tinnitus, it's important to see your clinician. She or he will take a medical history, give you a physical examination, and do a series of tests to try to find the source of the problem. She or he will also ask you to describe the noise you're hearing (including its pitch and sound quality, and whether it's constant or periodic, steady or pulsatile) and the times and places in which you hear it. Your clinician will review your medical history, your current and past exposure to noise, and any medications or supplements you're taking. Tinnitus can be a side effect of many medications, especially when taken at higher doses (see "Some drugs that can cause or worsen tinnitus").
If you experience tinnitus, don’t suffer in silence. The ringing, roaring, buzzing, or hissing in your ears may be interfering with your sleep, your relaxation, and your enjoyment of life. Why let tinnitus control your life? Many effective treatments for tinnitus exist these days – treatments based on solid research that have proven effective and benefited many people. With help from a tinnitus treatment expert, you could finally silence the tinnitus that has perturbed you for years.
Hyperacusis is a different, but related condition to tinnitus. People with hyperacusis have a high sensitivity to common, everyday environmental noise. In particular, sharp and high-pitched sounds are very difficult for people with hyperacusis to tolerate—sounds like the screeching of brakes, a baby crying or a dog barking, a sink full of dishes and silverware clanging. Many people with tinnitus also experience hyperacusis—but the two conditions don’t always go together.
Acoustic qualification of tinnitus will include measurement of several acoustic parameters like frequency in cases of monotone tinnitus or frequency range and bandwidth in cases of narrow band noise tinnitus, loudness in dB above hearing threshold at the indicated frequency, mixing-point, and minimum masking level. In most cases, tinnitus pitch or frequency range is between 5 kHz and 10 kHz, and loudness between 5 and 15 dB above the hearing threshold.
At Sound Relief Hearing Center, we utilize a variety of evidence-based tinnitus treatment options. Most audiologists only offer one solution, hearing aids, which are ineffective in many cases. To treat each unique case of tinnitus, we utilize a variety of innovative technologies and therapies, including Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT). For more information about your tinnitus treatment options, visit our page Tinnitus Treatment. If you’re worried that you won’t ever escape the ringing in your ears, check out our page Tinnitus Success Stories. Finally, follow our Tips from Tinnitus Experts to avoid exacerbating the problem.
Ear protection can mitigate the negative effects of loud noises and prevent the exacerbation of tinnitus. This is especially important if you work in a loud environment or regularly visit loud places, like shooting ranges, concerts, and clubs. Wearing custom earplugs or special earmuffs can go a long way toward preventing your tinnitus from worsening.
You don’t need to enroll in an eight-week program to get started with mindfulness training. Participants in the MBTSR program all received a copy of the groundbreaking book “Full Catastrophe Living” by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn’s book is the premier manual for practicing mindfulness in daily life. You will learn about, and be encouraged to practice, meditation and breathing techniques that can help draw your focus away from tinnitus.
The researchers paired electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve — a large nerve that runs from the head to the abdomen — with the playing of a tone. Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is known to release chemicals that encourage changes in the brain. This technique, the scientists reasoned, might induce brain cells (neurons) to tune to frequencies other than the tinnitus one. For 20 days, 300 times a day, they played a high-pitched tone to 8 rats during VNS.
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.
Cartoon of the middle ear showing muscles that attach to ossicles (ear bones), and ear drum. The stapedius is attached to the stapes (of course -- horseshoe object above), while the tensor tympani is attached to the ear drum. While useful, be aware that there are multiple errors in this illustration from Loyola Medical School. With permission, from: http://www.meddean.luc.edu/lumen/meded/grossanatomy/dissector/mml/images/stap.jpg
Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). This technique, which uses a small device placed on the scalp to generate short magnetic pulses, is already being used to normalize electrical activity in the brains of people with epilepsy. Preliminary trials of rTMS in humans, funded by the NIDCD, are helping researchers pinpoint the best places in the brain to stimulate in order to suppress tinnitus. Researchers are also looking for ways to identify which people are most likely to respond well to stimulation devices.
We occasionally recommend neuropsychological testing using a simple screening questionnaire -- depression, anxiety, and OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) are common in persons with tinnitus. This is not surprising considering how disturbing tinnitus may be to ones life (Holmes and Padgham, 2009). Persons with OCD tend to "obsess" about tinnitus. Treatment of these psychological conditions may be extremely helpful.
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.
Although drugs cannot cure tinnitus, there are a few that will help suppress the symptoms you are experiencing. Tricyclic antidepressants, like amitriptyline and nortriptyline, are two of the most commonly prescribed medications. If you are experiencing severe tinnitus, one of these drugs may be used. However, it's important to know that these medications may come with side effects such as dry mouth, blurry vision and heart issues. Discuss any other conditions you have or medications you are currently taking with your physician. Niravam and Xanax can also be prescribed, but each of these medications can cause drowsiness and nausea, and they can be habit-forming.
Masking Devices. Similar to the white noise machines listed above, there are now masking devices that can be worn in the ear, just like a hearing aid, that do almost the same thing. They produce low-level white noise that can suppresses your tinnitus symptoms by training your brain to focus on them instead of the ringing in your ears. These are perfect if you can’t always have a white noise machine running near you.
There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that some tinnitus is a consequence of neuroplastic alterations in the central auditory pathway. These alterations are assumed to result from a disturbed sensory input, caused by hearing loss. Hearing loss could indeed cause a homeostatic response of neurons in the central auditory system, and therefore cause tinnitus.
While there are many different FDA-approved treatments for tinnitus available, the most important component is finding the right partner (i.e. a Doctor of Audiology), who will work closely with you to help explain your tinnitus and treatment progress over time. In order for the options below to be as successful as possible, the proper support and guidance from an experienced tinnitus specialist is mandatory.
Although there’s no proven cure for tinnitus, there are treatments that help make it easier to ignore. For example, you can wear devices in your ear(s) that produce soothing therapeutic noises to shift your focus away from the tinnitus. Other devices produce constant, soft noise to mask the tinnitus. Tinnitus sufferers who also have hearing loss sometimes find relief simply by wearing properly fitted hearing aids.