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.
Almost always, 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’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. Some of the causes of are:
- Exposure to loud noises
- Ear infections
- Head injury
- Waxy build-up in the ear
These are just a few of the most common causes, but it can also be a side-effect of medication or a result of other health concerns, such as high blood pressure. It is also commonly associated with age-related hearing loss, although it can affect anyone at any age.
What does it sound like?
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.
Does 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.
How many people have tinnitus?
About 90 percent of cases occur with an underlying hearing loss. The World Health Organisation (WHO) now lists tinnitus as a distinct disorder and states that noise exposure is a major cause of permanent hearing loss around the world.
Recent research confirms that it is the second most common form of hearing loss after age-related hearing loss.
The persistency of the condition is experienced by approximately 10% of the adult UK population. Prevalence increases with age but experiences of it are very common in all age groups, especially following exposure to loud noise. About half of those who live with the condition find it moderately or severely distressing with about 0.5% of adults in the UK (242,000 people) having a severe effect on the ability to lead a normal life.
About 8% of the population actively seek medical advice with approximately 750,000 primary care consultations in England each year. You may suffer debilitating symptoms such as anxiety, depression or sleep disturbances but only 2.5% attended hospital for this purpose.
It can be confusing and even frightening when it occurs for the first time, but it is rarely a symptom of a serious disorder. If it lasts for longer than a week, or if it is affecting your concentration, sleep or anxiety levels, book an appointment with your GP or with your local Amplifon Audiologist.
In some cases, the problem can be managed with relaxation exercises. There are also specialist hearing solutions available that can provide soothing tones to distract you from the noise of it.
For more information, visit The British Tinnitus Association who can support and authoritative information, much of it written by medical and audiology professionals or clinical researchers. Its support network can also put you in touch with other people who share similar experiences.
To learn more about the causes, symptoms and treatments, refer to our individual guides.