What is Tinnitus?

Tinnitus is a medical condition in which one hears sounds without an external stimulus. Known commonly as “ringing of the ear,” tinnitus appears in many different sounds, depending on the person. It has been described as a crack, a rush of air, a whistle, a buzz, and in some rare cases, music.

Tinnitus may be acute (temporary) or chronic (ongoing). Temporary tinnitus may come and go, while chronic tinnitus occurs consistently for long periods of time. Tinnitus has the potential to affect one’s health and well-being. It has been linked to sleep deprivation, anxiety, depression, and increased levels of stress. This could radiate in other areas of one’s life – such as concentration and memory problems which may affect one’s employment.

Tinnitus often indicates the existence of other medical conditions, as it tends to be a symptom. The American Tinnitus Association (ATA) says: “While tinnitus is most often triggered by hearing loss, there are roughly 200 different health disorders that can generate tinnitus as a symptom.”

Prevalence of Tinnitus

Approximately 25 million American adults have reported having had tinnitus for five or more continuous minutes in the past year, and approximately 16 million people have sought medical attention for tinnitus.

Chronic tinnitus affects 20 million Americans, with 2 million experiencing debilitating cases. Tinnitus appears in 80% of hearing loss cases, as there have been some similarities in both conditions.

Types and Causes of Tinnitus

There are two main types of tinnitus: subjective and objective.

Subjective tinnitus, which makes up more than 99% of cases, is the experience of sound that only you can hear. Subjective tinnitus is most often caused by issues relating to the ear: outer, middle, and inner. Sensorineural hearing loss, which happens due to the irreparable damage to inner ear cells, may be a cause of tinnitus. Other causes include the use of ototoxic medication, Meniere’s disease, impacted earwax, and other related medical conditions.

Objective tinnitus, which makes up less than 1% of cases, means that the person who experiences tinnitus as well as someone sitting nearby may hear the sounds. This rare form of tinnitus indicates that there may be related medical issues in the body. Pulsatile tinnitus matches the rate of one’s heartbeat. Causes of objective tinnitus include high blood pressure, or medical issues related to the circulatory or somatic systems.

Tinnitus and Hearing Loss

Tinnitus and hearing loss are closely linked, with tinnitus accompanying 80% of hearing loss cases. Hearing specialists have hypothesized that the link may lie in the damage of inner ear hair cells. Inner ear hair cells are responsible for translating the vibrations of sound waves into neural signals that are registered by the brain as sound. When these cells are damaged, they do not regenerate. This damage is one cause of sensorineural hearing loss. At the same time, these damaged inner ear hair cells may leak sound, which may cause tinnitus – the experience of phantom sounds.

Treating Tinnitus

There is no definitive cure for tinnitus, but there are treatments available to lessen the symptoms. For cases in which tinnitus is related to other medical issues, the treatment of related issues may eliminate the symptoms of tinnitus.

The most respected form of treatment for subjective tinnitus is through sound masking and the use of hearing aids. Hearing specialists believe that sound masking provides relief from the sounds of tinnitus, pushing the frustrating sounds into the background and re-training the ear to hear.

Many hearing aid manufacturers offer tinnitus therapy in the form of sound masking features for hearing aids. The sound masking options range from nature sounds, such as sea or forest, to digital tones of different colors – cool to warm. Additionally, some manufacturers offer standalone devices designed to specifically treat tinnitus.

The best course of action, if you believe you are experiencing tinnitus, is to visit us at The Hearing Center at the Medical Center Clinic for a hearing exam and evaluation. We’ll help you determine your current hearing abilities, identify the possible causes of tinnitus, and recommend next steps for treatment.