What is tinnitus?
Tinnitus is the term used to describe ear or head noise. It is very common. Most people have experienced it at some point. Persistent tinnitus affects approximately 1 in 10 adults in the United States. Tinnitus is more common in people with hearing loss, but can also occur with normal hearing.
While it can vary, the noise is typically described as ringing, buzzing, humming, hissing, tones, crickets, or clicking. There are two types of tinnitus: subjective and objective. Subjective tinnitus is the most common. Objective is much less common and is caused by structures in or near the ear.
With subjective tinnitus, only you can hear the noises in your ears and know what they sound like. Tinnitus can occur in one or both ears and can be intermittent or persistent.
Tinnitus is due to a malfunction in the hearing system. Basically, hearing occurs because of electrical energy that is transmitted from the inner ear to the hearing nerve and then to the brain. Sometimes these pathways short-circuit. The result is an overactive system, causing noises in the ear or head.
There are several possible causes of tinnitus and may be a combination of factors. Some of the causes include:
- age-related hearing loss
- noise-induced hearing loss
- blockages in the outer or middle ear
- head or neck trauma
- pressure injury (such as from snorkeling, diving, flying, or blast exposure)
- traumatic brain injury (TBI)
- medication side-effects
- ear disease
- temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder
- high blood pressure
As with many conditions, some factors are associated with an increased risk of tinnitus, including:
- advancing age
- loud noise exposure (such as from the military, work, or hobbies)
- gender (it is more common in men than women)
- heart disease
- a diet high in sodium or caffeine
Tinnitus itself can be bothersome. It might also interfere with memory, concentration, or sleep. Some people with tinnitus also experience anxiety or depression. Tinnitus may seem worse when you are tired, stressed, or anxious. Those with tinnitus may also experience sound sensitivity.
Tinnitus seems loudest when the room is quiet. This is why people with hearing loss tend to be more bothered by tinnitus.
The good news is managing tinnitus is possible! The first step is talking with your physician, who can help identify and treat any medical causes. Next, a comprehensive hearing evaluation by a licensed audiologist is recommended. Those with hearing loss will often find relief from tinnitus with the use of hearing aids. If your tinnitus persists after the above steps, work with an audiologist who can create a treatment plan that is right for you to help manage your condition.
Once you are diagnosed with tinnitus, there are things you can do to minimize the impact.
- Because tinnitus and stress or anxiety are often connected, taking time to relax is very important.
- Sleep should be a priority. Good sleep habits include a healthy bedtime routine and creating the ideal sleep environment.
- Relaxation exercises and sound therapy have also been proven effective. Don’t be afraid to get creative with mindfulness, meditation, or yoga. You could also try downloading a free tinnitus app for your smartphone with instruction and therapeutic sounds. Your audiologist can suggest some apps that have been specially developed for clinical tinnitus management.
Can it be prevented?
Not all tinnitus is preventable. But there are some things that you can do to reduce your risk.
- Protect your ears. Keep the volume down, especially when using earbuds or headphones. If loud sounds are unavoidable, use hearing protection such as ear plugs or noise reducing ear muffs.
- Healthy Habits. A healthy diet and exercise are good for your overall health and wellness – including your hearing!
For more information, visit the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA). Tinnitus support is available through the American Tinnitus Association (ATA).
If you are having trouble with your hearing, our audiology department can help or talk with your primary care provider.