Tinnitus is the perception of sound in the ears or head that is not caused by an external sound source. Ringing and buzzing sounds may be heard in one or both ears or appear to be generally in the head region.
It’s not an illness or a disease in itself, but it is often a symptom of a problem within the ear or the hearing pathways to the brain. Usually, it occurs when the inner ear is damaged or impaired in some way. Some potential causes include:
These are just a few of the most common causes, but tinnitus can also be a side-effect of medication or a result of other health concerns, such as high blood pressure. It is also commonly associated with age-related hearing loss, although it can affect anyone at any age.
Tinnitus is often described as a ‘ringing in the ears’, but what people with this condition hear is extremely variable. Some people hear hissing, whooshing, roaring, whistling or clicking. It can be intermittent or constant, single or multiple tones or more noise-like. Probably the most common description for noise-induced tinnitus is a high pitched tone or noise.
The volume or loudness varies between individuals and can range from very quiet to disturbingly loud. Although some people say that it comes and goes or as a tone that changes pitch throughout the day, for most it is a steady, unchanging noise that is present during every waking minute.
About 90 percent of cases of tinnitus occur with an underlying hearing loss. The World Health Organisation (WHO) now lists tinnitus as a distinct disorder and states that noise exposure is a major cause of permanent hearing loss around the world. Recent research confirms that it is the second most common form of hearing loss after age-related hearing loss. Prevalence increases with age but experiences of it are very common in all age groups, especially following exposure to loud noise.
About half of those who live with tinnitus find it moderately or severely distressing. You may suffer debilitating symptoms such as anxiety, depression or sleep disturbances. It can be confusing and even frightening when it occurs for the first time, but it is rarely a symptom of a serious disorder. If it lasts for longer than a week, or if it is affecting your concentration, sleep or anxiety levels, book an appointment with your GP or with your local National Hearing Care audiologist or audiometrist.
Tinnitus is not a disease or a cause of hearing loss. It is a symptom that something is wrong somewhere in the auditory system, which can include the cochlea of the inner ear, the auditory nerve and the areas of the brain that process sound. In about 90% of cases, it accompanies hearing loss and an individual can experience both hearing loss and tinnitus from noise damage, but the two do not always occur together. It is possible to have no measurable hearing loss but suffer from the condition.
Hearing aids can help manage tinnitus as they assist in overcoming any underlying hearing loss. By reducing the amount of attention your brain is paying to the tinnitus, in most cases hearing aids can give you some relief.
Find out more about tinnitus treatment, its causes, and other disorders.