Tinnitus: Ringing in the Ears

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is the perception of sound in the ears or head not caused by an external sound source. Ringing and buzzing sounds may be heard in one or both ears or appear to be generally in the head region but can be variable and difficult to decide exactly where it seems to be. The sound can also be described as hissing, screeching, whooshing, pulsing, or buzzing. Tinnitus is quite common, affecting almost 15% of adults.

How many people suffer from tinnitus?

  • Fifty million adults are affected by tinnitus.
  • Tinnitus affects approximately 10%-15% of all adults.
  • 1% of adults have tinnitus severe enough to cause disturbance in their daily life.
  • Men experience tinnitus more often than women

Types of tinnitus

There are 2 types of tinnitus: subjective tinnitus, the most common type, and objective tinnitus, which is much rarer.

  • Subjective Tinnitus: this type of tinnitus can only be heard by the person who experiences it and can be either temporary or chronic. The sensation of sound may be perceived in one ear, both ears, or just outside the head. The sound may always be the same, or it could be multiple sounds that are always changing. This is the most common type of tinnitus.

  • Objective Tinnitus: this type of tinnitus is heard not only by the person experiencing it, but it can also be detected by someone else. It is commonly heard as a regular pulsing noise, in rhythm with the person’s blood flow or pulse near the ear tissue.

Tinnitus symptoms

Almost always, tinnitus it is a totally subjective noise which only the person who has it can hear. On rare occasions, it can be heard by others as well; this is called objective tinnitus but is not associated with the effects of noise exposure. It is often described as a "ringing in the ears," but what people with this condition hear is extremely variable. Some people hear hissing, whooshing, roaring, whistling or clicking. It can be intermittent or constant, single or multiple tones or more noise-like. Probably the most common description for noise-induced tinnitus is a high pitched tone or noise.

 

The volume or loudness is very individual and can range from very quiet to disturbingly loud. Although some people say that it comes and goes or as a tone that changes pitch through the day. For most it is a steady, unchanging noise every waking minute.It’s not an illness or a disease in itself, but it is often a symptom of a problem with the ear or the hearing pathways to the brain. Usually, it occurs when the inner ear is damaged or impaired in some way. For those experiencing tinnitus, it is important to remember that tinnitus itself is a symptom of a problem rather than the problem itself, just as a headache can be a symptom of many different illnesses.

Establishing the severity of tinnitus

  • Does the ringing affect one or both ears?
  • Is the sound constant or sporadic?
  • What is the perceived pitch and volume?
  • Does the ringing affect daily activities like sleep or work?
  • Are there are any external factors, such as drinking caffeinated beverages, that make the sound seem worse?

For those experiencing tinnitus, it is important to remember that tinnitus itself is a symptom of a problem rather than the problem itself, just as a headache can be a symptom of many different illnesses. To effectively treat or manage this condition, identifying the underlying cause is the first step. Some causes, such as excess earwax buildup, hypertension and stress, anemia, or overconsumption of caffeine or cigarettes, can be treated or eliminated relatively easily.

Can tinnitus cause hearing loss?

Tinnitus is not a disease itself or a cause of hearing loss. It is a symptom that something is wrong somewhere in the auditory system, which can include the cochlea of the inner ear, the auditory nerve and the areas of the brain that process sound. In about 90% of cases, it accompanies hearing loss and an individual can have both hearing loss and tinnitus from noise damage. However the two do not always occur together. It is possible to have no measurable hearing loss but suffer from the condition.

Symptoms

Tinnitus affects you in different ways.  Severe or long-standing tinnitus symptoms tend to align with one of three categories. 

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Causes of tinnitus

Some of the most common causes include:

  • Exposure to loud noises
  • Ear infections
  • Head injury
  • Waxy build-up in the ear
  • Side-effect of a medication
  • Result of other health concerns, including blood pressure

 

Learn more.

Tinnitus treatment

Identifying the underlying cause is the first step. Some causes, such as excess earwax buildup, hypertension and stress, anemia, or overconsumption of caffeine or cigarettes, can be treated or eliminated relatively easily. 

Learn more.
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