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What is tinnitus?

Many people experience tinnitus. Learn more about what those noises mean and how to treat them.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Jessica Hinson

Updated:

May 17, 2024

An elderly person's ear gets inspected by an audiologist. An elderly person's ear gets inspected by an audiologist.

The 3 key takeaways

  • Tinnitus is a symptom, not a disease— It can’t harm you, but tinnitus can indicate an underlying medical condition.
  • Tinnitus is not just ringing— For some, it can be whistling, humming, or even static.
  • Tinnitus is treatable— Although not curable, you can manage tinnitus with or without professional help.

Exactly what is tinnitus? Technically, tinnitus is the perception of sound when there are no external sources. Have you ever heard a sharp buzzing, and, when you mentioned it to a friend, they told you they heard nothing?

If you haven’t experienced this, you probably know someone who has. Tinnitus (TIN-ni-tus), often called “ringing in the ears,” is a common problem.

According to the National Institute of Health, about twenty-five million Americans have experienced tinnitus in the last year. The good news is that tinnitus is generally harmless.

Read on to learn more about tinnitus and when you shouldn’t ignore it.

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is typically a sound noticed in one or both ears; however, one might also perceive it in their head. Many describe tinnitus as a high-pitched ringing, but it differs for everyone.

It can be constant or intermittent, coming and going at any interval. It is not uncommon for people to perceive their hearing as muffled when tinnitus is present.

Tinnitus can range from barely noticeable to loud and debilitating.

The exact mechanisms behind tinnitus are not entirely known, but researchers suggest a misfiring of auditory neurons creates tinnitus. Neurons are nerve cells that communicate information between the brain and the rest of the body.

In the inner ear, auditory neurons carry electrical information about sound to the brain for interpretation. The neurons might still fire when auditory information is missing, such as with a hearing loss.

The misfiring leads the brain to perceive sounds that are not there.

Symptoms of tinnitus

  • Ringing
  • Roaring
  • Whooshing
  • Humming
  • Pulsing with your heartbeat
  • White noise

Types of tinnitus

There are two types of tinnitus: subjective and objective. Subjective tinnitus implies that you are the only one who can hear the tinnitus.

The majority of tinnitus is subjective. Objective tinnitus means that another person can hear the tinnitus.

This type of tinnitus is rare and usually occurs when there are vascular or muscular causes.

Causes of tinnitus

  • Noise exposure
  • Earwax impaction
  • Ear infection
  • Upper respiratory infection
  • Medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), antibiotics, diuretics, chemotherapy, and antidepressants
  • Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMJ)
  • Head injury

Other causes of tinnitus

Some causes of tinnitus are less common. If you suspect you have any of these conditions, please speak with your healthcare provider.

Although you should get a baseline hearing test with an audiologist to rule out hearing loss, your provider might also order other specialized types of hearing tests.

  • Vascular problems. Disorders that affect the arteries and blood vessels can cause tinnitus. The tinnitus that results is often pulsatile, which is rhythmic and can follow the beat of your heart.
  • Meniere’s disease. This inner ear disease can cause vertigo, hearing loss, and tinnitus. Roaring tinnitus is common with this disease.
  • Brain tumors. Tumors of the brain, head, and neck can cause tinnitus. Tinnitus might coincide with balance problems and might occur in one ear.
  • Chronic conditions. Diabetes, thyroid disease, migraines, and autoimmune disorders can all cause tinnitus.

Learn more about hearing and balance disorders that can cause tinnitus.

How to treat tinnitus

Treatment for tinnitus will depend on the suspected causes and how bothersome it is. If your tinnitus is intermittent, you might not need the same approaches as a person who deals with tinnitus all the time. Although tinnitus is typically not curable, tinnitus treatment aims to help reduce the negative impacts of tinnitus on your mental and physical health. Most hearing loss treatment is individualized; it may take multiple options before finding what works for you.

Hearing aids/Cochlear implants

If your tinnitus is caused by hearing loss, treating the underlying hearing loss is an appropriate option and is often the first step. Many people with hearing loss find relief from their tinnitus when fit with hearing aids or cochlear implants.

They report that tinnitus goes away or is less when wearing their devices. Since amplification provides your brain with sound stimulation, it no longer notices or focuses on internal sounds.

Masking

Introducing sound into your environment can help mask or cancel out tinnitus. Playing music in the background when it is quiet or turning on a fan at night when trying to sleep are types of masking. You can even purchase small noise machines that play white noise or soothing sounds. Many apps are available for smartphones that provide similar features. If you are a hearing aid user, many hearing aids have masking programs built-in. Talk with your audiologist about your options if you wear hearing aids already.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

When masking and amplification are not enough, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an excellent option for those needing more help managing their tinnitus.

Working with a behavioral health professional specializing in CBT can help you reduce stress and your negative emotions about tinnitus. CBT can help you distract your attention away from the tinnitus, with the end goal of habituation.

Habituation means that your brain has gotten used to it.

Tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT)

Tinnitus retraining therapy is a treatment option that uses sound therapy and counseling strategies to help you manage your tinnitus.

Since sound therapy uses low-level masking devices or hearing aids, an audiologist will assist you with this process. TRT can be an effective tool in helping people with moderate to severe chronic tinnitus habituate to their tinnitus.

Alternative treatment

Other tools geared toward overall wellness and stress management can also help reduce the harmful impacts of tinnitus. Meditation, mindfulness techniques, and even biofeedback can improve your quality of life.

These options work on the principle that you can regain control of your body by calming your brain.

Can tinnitus be prevented?

Sometimes tinnitus is a symptom of an underlying condition that is out of your control. But there are also ways you can reduce your risk of getting tinnitus.

The simplest way you can prevent tinnitus is by practicing good hearing health. Avoiding loud noises and wearing hearing protection when needed will help prevent inner ear damage. Limiting the volume of your music is also essential, especially when you wear headphones or earbuds.

Tinnitus and cardiovascular problems are often related. You can reduce your risk of tinnitus by eating a healthy diet and staying active, which is essential for cardiovascular health.

Talk to your healthcare provider if you have cardiovascular disease and need help managing your lifestyle.

Tinnitus can also be prevented or reduced by caring for our emotional health.

Let’s face it; we live in a stressful world and have a lot of responsibilities. Making an effort to reduce stress wherever possible, getting good sleep, and caring for mental health can go a long way.

 

Frequently asked questions

What is the leading cause of tinnitus?

The primary cause of tinnitus is damage to the auditory system. Aging, noise exposure, and certain medications that have the potential to damage the inner ear often result in tinnitus.

I saw an ad for a supplement that claims it can cure tinnitus. Does it work?

There are currently no medications or supplements proven to cure tinnitus. Since the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate supplements, please use them cautiously or speak with your healthcare provider before you decide to add any to your regimen.

Does tinnitus go away?

Some people have temporary tinnitus caused by an underlying medical condition, such as an ear infection, or cardiovascular issues, such as atherosclerosis.

When you treat the underlying issue, tinnitus usually goes away. However, most tinnitus is not the result of another medical problem and is usually there to stay.

What is the best treatment for tinnitus?

Tinnitus treatment is not a one-size-fits-all approach. The best treatment for tinnitus is the one that works for you!

Tinnitus treatment aims to habituate you to the sounds so your brain stops reacting to them. You may need to try multiple treatments before you find what benefits you.

Who treats tinnitus?

Audiologists, psychologists, and otolaryngologists treat tinnitus, but other professionals might be involved depending on the specific symptoms.

Check our directory to find a licensed audiologist if you suspect you may have tinnitus.