Tinnitus is noise or ringing in the ears. It involves the sensation of hearing sound when no external sound is present. A common problem, tinnitus affects about 1 in 5 people. Tinnitus is a symptom of an underlying condition, such as age-related hearing loss, ear injury or a circulatory system disorder.
Tinnitus usually isn't a sign of something serious. Although it can worsen with age, for many people, tinnitus can improve with treatment. Treating the underlying cause sometimes helps. Some treatments mask the noise, making tinnitus less noticeable. Symptoms include:
Tinnitus can vary in pitch from a low roar to a high squeal. It can interfere with a person’s ability to concentrate or hear actual sound. Tinnitus may be sporadic or permanent.
There are two kinds of tinnitus.
- Subjective tinnitus
is tinnitus only you can hear. This is the most common type of tinnitus. It can be caused by ear problems in your outer, middle or inner ear. It also can be caused by problems with the hearing (auditory) nerves or the part of your brain that interprets nerve signals as sound (auditory pathways).
- Objective tinnitus
is tinnitus your doctor can hear when he or she does an examination. This rare type of tinnitus may be caused by a blood vessel problem, an inner ear bone condition or muscle contractions.
When To See A Doctor
- If you have tinnitus that bothers you.
- You develop tinnitus after an upper respiratory infection, such as a cold, and your tinnitus doesn't improve within a week.
- You have tinnitus that occurs suddenly or without an apparent cause. See doctor immediately.
- You have hearing loss or dizziness with the tinnitus. See doctor immediately.
A number of health conditions can cause or worsen tinnitus. In many cases, an exact cause is never found.
A common cause of tinnitus is inner ear cell damage. If the hairs inside your inner ear are bent or broken, they can "leak" random electrical impulses to your brain, causing tinnitus. Other causes of tinnitus include other ear problems, chronic health conditions, and injuries or conditions that affect the nerves in your ear or the hearing center in your brain.
Common causes of tinnitus:
In many people, tinnitus is caused by one of these conditions:
- Age-related hearing loss.
For many people, hearing worsens with age, usually starting around age 60. Hearing loss can cause tinnitus. The medical term for this type of hearing loss is presbycusis.
- Exposure to loud noise.
Loud noises, such as those from heavy equipment, chain saws and firearms, are common sources of noise-related hearing loss. Portable music devices, such as MP3 players or iPods, also can cause noise-related hearing loss if played loudly for long periods. Tinnitus caused by short-term exposure, such as attending a loud concert, usually goes away; long-term exposure to loud sound can cause permanent damage.
- Earwax blockage.
Earwax protects your ear canal by trapping dirt and slowing the growth of bacteria. When too much earwax accumulates, it becomes too hard to wash away naturally, causing hearing loss or irritation of the eardrum, which can lead to tinnitus.
- Ear bone changes.
Stiffening of the bones in your middle ear (otosclerosis) may affect your hearing and cause tinnitus. This condition, caused by abnormal bone growth, tends to run in families.
Other causes of tinnitus:
Some causes of tinnitus are less common, including:
- Meniere's disease.
Tinnitus can be an early indicator of Meniere's disease, an inner ear disorder that may be caused by abnormal inner ear fluid pressure.
- TMJ disorders.
Problems with the temporomandibular joint, the joint on each side of your head in front of your ears, where your lower jawbone meets your skull, can cause tinnitus.
- Head injuries or neck injuries.
Head or neck trauma can affect the inner ear, hearing nerves or brain function linked to hearing. Such injuries generally cause tinnitus in only one ear.
- Acoustic neuroma. This noncancerous (benign) tumor develops on the cranial nerve that runs from your brain to your inner ear and controls balance and hearing. Also called vestibular schwannoma, this condition generally causes tinnitus in only one ear.
- Blood vessel disorders linked to tinnitus
In rare cases, tinnitus is caused by a blood vessel disorder. This type of tinnitus is called pulsatile tinnitus.
- Medications that can cause tinnitus
A number of medications may cause or worsen tinnitus. Generally, the higher the dose of these medications, the worse tinnitus becomes. Often the unwanted noise disappears when you stop using these drugs. Medications known to cause or worsen tinnitus include:
- Antibiotics, including polymyxin B, erythromycin, vancomycin and neomycin
- Cancer medications
- Water pills (diuretics)
- Certain antidepressants
taken in uncommonly high doses (usually 12 or more a day)
Risk Factors for Tinnitus:
- Loud noise exposure.
Prolonged exposure to loud noise can damage the tiny sensory hair cells in your ear that transmit sound to your brain. People who work in noisy environments — such as factory and construction workers, musicians, and soldiers — are particularly at risk.
As you age, the number of functioning nerve fibers in your ears declines, possibly causing hearing problems often associated with tinnitus.
Men are more likely to experience tinnitus.
Smokers have a higher risk of developing tinnitus.
- Cardiovascular problems.
Conditions that affect your blood flow, such as high blood pressure or narrowed arteries (atherosclerosis), can increase your risk of tinnitus.