Tinnitus is the sensation of hearing noise when there is none. It is a relatively common problem that affects around 15% to 20% percent of people. Of these cases, about two million are extreme and can significantly interrupt daily life.
Tinnitus is often described as:
- In rare cases, music or voices
This noise can be constant, or it might come and go. It can vary in pitch and loudness, and tinnitus can affect one or both ears. Although the noise you hear seems to be in your ears, the source is in your neural circuits, the networks of brain cells that process sound. Scientists haven’t determined how neural circuits are affected by tinnitus, which makes treatment difficult.
There are two types of tinnitus. Subjective tinnitus includes head and ear sounds that only you can hear. Objective tinnitus refers to noises produced within your body that a doctor can hear using a stethoscope. These noises are caused by blood flow, muscle movements, or middle ear disorders like otosclerosis, allergies, or benign tumors. Objective tinnitus is rare, contributing less than 5% of all cases.
Tinnitus is not a disease itself. Rather, it’s a symptom of other health conditions like metabolic, vascular, or autoimmune disorders. For many people, finding the exact cause can be difficult because many health conditions can have tinnitus as a symptom.
Some health conditions linked with tinnitus include:
- Age-related hearing loss
- Exposure to loud noises like firearms or music played loudly for long periods
- Earwax buildup
- Ear infections
- Injuries such as head or neck trauma
- Brain tumors
- Nerve problems like multiple sclerosis
- Blood vessel disorders such as high blood pressure
- Autoimmune diseases like fibromyalgia
- Thyroid problems
Although there are many possible causes, some people can develop tinnitus for no obvious reason.
Also, more than 200 medications are known to cause tinnitus, including:
In many cases, your tinnitus will subside once you stop taking the medications that are causing it.
Remedies and Treatments for Tinnitus
Tinnitus can affect your quality of life. People with tinnitus often experience anxiety, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, depression, frustration, or irritability. Although there is no proven cure for tinnitus, there are ways to help you cope with it.
Hearing aids are useful if you also have hearing loss. The better you can hear, the less you may notice your tinnitus. A survey found that 60% of tinnitus patients experienced improvements with their tinnitus when using hearing aids.
This option is for people who have tinnitus as well as severe hearing loss. A cochlear implant bypasses parts of the ear and electrically stimulates the nerve that deals with hearing. Researchers have found that cochlear implants can help reduce the severity of tinnitus.
This method uses sounds to mask tinnitus so that it’s less noticeable. Almost any sound-producing device like a sound machine, electric fan, or air conditioner can help. There are also wearable sound devices that fit inside your ear.
There are a variety of sound therapies available. Some involve listening to modified sounds and music that train your brain to re-process the noise you hear as something that’s not important. Most sound therapies can minimize tinnitus in some patients, especially those with more severe tinnitus. However, more research is needed to prove the effectiveness of sound therapy.
By using non-invasive, external devices, you incorporate two forms of sensory stimulation – sound and touch-- to train your brain to perceive sound differently. The devices are used for a few minutes each day to gradually rewire the brain circuits associated with tinnitus.
Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on problem solving to help improve your sense of wellbeing. Some tinnitus-specific cognitive behavioral therapies combine counseling, patient education, and sound therapy to train your brain to ignore the tinnitus. These therapies include tinnitus retraining therapy and progressive tinnitus management. A small study showed that tinnitus retraining therapy can be more effective than other therapies.
When to See a Doctor
You may need to see your doctor if: