What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus (“TIN-a-tus” or “Tin-EYE-tus”) is the medical term for the sensation of hearing sounds in your head or ears when no external noise is present.  People who suffer from tinnitus typically describe the sound as ringing in the ears or others may describe it as buzzing, roaring, hissing or pulsing. Tinnitus is frequently associated with hearing loss.

What causes tinnitus?

Tinnitus is not a disease but rather a symptom of something may be wrong in your auditory system which includes the ear, the auditory nerve and the parts of the brain which processes sound. The most common causes are: Noise exposure (e.g. from military service or construction), head trauma (e.g. from a fall or an accident), a natural part of the aging process, or a result from taking medications.  Several health conditions can also cause tinnitus including:

  • Ear and sinus infections
  • Ménière’s disease
  • Brain tumors
  • Diseases of the blood vessels and heart
  • Hormonal effects in women
  • Thyroid malfunction

Even with all of these associated conditions and causes, some people develop tinnitus for no obvious reason. Most of the time, tinnitus isn’t a sign of a serious health problem, although if it’s loud or doesn’t go away, it can cause fatigue, depression, anxiety, and problems with memory and concentration. For some, tinnitus can be a source of real mental and emotional anguish.

 
 
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What should I do if I have tinnitus?

The first thing you should do is consult with your primary care doctor.  Depending on your symptoms and severity he/she may suggest you see a specialist called an otolaryngologist (commonly called an ear, nose, and throat doctor, or an ENT). The ENT will physically examine your head, neck, and ears and test your hearing to determine whether you have any hearing loss along with the tinnitus.  If a hearing loss is detected it maybe recommended you see a hearing professional to be fitted with hearing aids to treat your hearing loss and to further evaluate your tinnitus.


Are there treatments available?

Tinnitus does not have a cure yet, but treatments are available that help many people cope better are available. Many doctors will offer a combination of the treatments below, depending on the severity of your tinnitus and the areas of your life it affects the most.

  • Hearing aids often are helpful for people who have hearing loss along with tinnitus. Using a hearing aid adjusted to carefully control outside sound levels may make it easier for you to hear and decrease your awareness of tinnitus. The better you hear, the less you may notice your tinnitus.
     
  • Counseling helps you learn how to live with your tinnitus. Most counseling programs have an educational component to help you understand what goes on in the brain to cause tinnitus. Some counseling programs also will help you change the way you think about and react to your tinnitus. You might learn some things to do on your own to make the noise less noticeable, to help you relax during the day, or to fall asleep at night.
     
  • Wearable sound generators are small electronic devices that fit in the ear and use a soft, pleasant sound to help mask the tinnitus. Some people want the masking sound to totally cover up their tinnitus, but most prefer a masking level that is just a bit louder than their tinnitus. The masking sound can be a soft “shhhhhhhhhhh,” random tones, or music

  • Tabletop sound generators are used as an aid for relaxation or sleep. Placed near your bed, you can program a generator to play pleasant sounds such as waves, waterfalls, rain, or the sounds of a summer night. If your tinnitus is mild, this might be all you need to help you fall asleep.
     
  • Acoustic neural stimulation is a relatively new technique for people whose tinnitus is very loud or won’t go away. It uses a palm-sized device and headphones to deliver a broadband acoustic signal embedded in music. The treatment helps stimulate change in the neural circuits in the brain, which eventually desensitizes you to the tinnitus. The device has been shown to be effective in reducing or eliminating tinnitus in a significant number of study volunteers
     
  • Cochlear implants are sometimes used in people who have tinnitus along with severe hearing loss. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged portion of the inner ear and sends electrical signals that directly stimulate the auditory nerve. The device brings in outside sounds that help mask tinnitus and stimulate change in the neural circuits. Read the NIDCD fact sheet Cochlear Implants for more information.
     
  • Antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs might be prescribed by your doctor to improve your mood and help you sleep.

Other medications may be available at drugstores and on the Internet as an alternative remedy for tinnitus, but none of these preparations has been proved effective in clinical trials. In addition, the Academy of Otolaryngology (AAO-HNS) and the American Tinnitus Association recommends these additional tips for minimizing the effects of tinnitus on your health:

  • Avoid exposure to loud sounds and noises.
  • Get your blood pressure checked. If it is high, get your doctor’s help to control it.
  • Decrease your intake of salt. Salt impairs blood circulation.
  • Avoid stimulants such as coffee, tea, cola, and tobacco.
  • Exercise daily to improve your circulation.
  • Get adequate rest and avoid fatigue.
  • Eliminate or reduce some stress in different parts of your life; stress often makes tinnitus worse.
  • Try eliminating other possible sources of tinnitus aggravation, e.g. artificial sweeteners, sugar, alcohol, prescription or over-the-counter medications.

(Do not stop taking medications without consulting with your health care professional)

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