Need Help?

What is Tinnitus?

Tinnitus (pronounced ti-NIGHT-us or TIN-i-tus) is the name given to the perception of a non-existent sound. People who suffer from tinnitus will experience a noise “in their ear” or “in their head” – this is commonly a ringing, buzzing, humming or whistling noise but sufferers may report hearing other noises such as ocean waves, insects or music. The word tinnitus comes from the Latin word tinnire, which means “to ring”.

What causes it?

The exact physiological causes of tinnitus are not known; however, there are a number of things which are widely understood to cause, or worsen, the condition:

  • Noise-induced hearing loss – Exposure to loud noises can damage and even destroy hair cells in the inner ear. Up to 90 percent of all tinnitus patients have some level of hearing loss.
  • Wax build-up in the ear canal – The amount of wax ears produce varies by individual. Sometimes, people produce enough wax that their hearing can be compromised or their tinnitus can seem louder. If you produce a lot of earwax, speak to your physician about having excess wax removed manually
  • Certain medications – Some medications are toxic to the ear. Other medications will produce tinnitus as a side effect without damaging the inner ear. Effects, which can depend on the dosage of the medication, can be temporary or permanent. Before taking any medication, make sure that your prescribing physician is aware of your tinnitus, and discuss alternative medications that may be available.
  • Ear or sinus infections – Many people, including children, experience tinnitus along with an ear or sinus infection. Generally, the tinnitus will lessen and gradually go away once the infection is healed.
  • Jaw misalignment – Some people have misaligned jaw joints or jaw muscles, which can not only induce tinnitus but also affect cranial muscles and nerves and shock absorbers in the jaw joint. Many dentists specialize in this temporomandibular jaw misalignment and can provide assistance with treatment.
  • Cardiovascular disease – Approximately 3 percent of tinnitus patients experience pulsatile tinnitus; people with pulsatile tinnitus typically hear a rhythmic pulsing, often in time with a heartbeat. Pulsatile tinnitus can indicate the presence of a vascular condition where the blood flow through veins and arteries is compromised-like a heart murmur, hypertension, or hardening of the arteries.
  • Head and neck trauma – Physical trauma to the head and neck can induce tinnitus. Other symptoms include headaches, vertigo, and memory loss.
  • Stress, anxiety or depression – It is well known that psychological problems, such as stress, can worsen an existing case of tinnitus – in rare cases, it cause it to start in non-sufferers.

Different types

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

  • Objective – Objective tinnitus is much rarer than Subjective. In these cases, it is possible for a physician to perceive actual sound emanating from the sufferer's ear. It can arise from muscle spasms that cause clicks or crackling around the middle ear.
  • Subjective – Subjective is defined as being the cases in which only the sufferer can hear the noises.

If you think you have it

Consult your GP or medical professional – they will attempt to determine the cause of the tinnitus and, if possible, offer some options for treatment. If they cannot offer a treatment, they should be able to refer you to an audiologist for further investigation into the problem.

Ways of reducing the effects of tinnitus

  • Avoid loud noises.
  • Avoid total silence.
  • Relax and avoid stress.
  • Avoid stimulants such as nicotine and caffeine.

Further reading

NHS Direct Online

British Tinnitus Association

American Tinnitus Association

RNID’s Tinnitus section