Tinnitus (pronounced tin-NY-tus or TIN-u-tus) is not a disease. It is a symptom that something is wrong in the auditory system, which includes the ear, the auditory nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain, and the parts of the brain that process sound. Something as simple as a piece of earwax blocking the ear canal can cause symptoms to emerge. But it can also be the result of a number of health conditions, such as:
Noise-induced hearing loss
Ear and sinus infections
Diseases of the heart or blood vessels
Hormonal changes in women
Tinnitus is sometimes the first sign of hearing loss in aging people. It also can be a side effect of medications. More than 200 drugs are known to cause ringing in the ears when you start or stop taking them.
Who Is At Risk?
People who work in noisy environments—such as factory or construction workers, road crews, or even musicians—can develop tinnitus over time when ongoing exposure to noise damages tiny sensory hair cells in the inner ear that help transmit sound to the brain. This is called noise-induced hearing loss.
Service members exposed to bomb blasts can develop tinnitus if the shock wave of the explosion squeezes the skull and damages brain tissue in areas that help process sound. In fact, it is one of the most common service-related disabilities among veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Why do I have this noise in my ears?
Scientists still haven’t agreed upon what happens in the brain to create the illusion of sound when there is none. Some think that tinnitus is similar to chronic pain syndrome, in which the pain persists even after a wound or broken bone has healed.
Tinnitus could be the result of the brain’s neural circuits trying to adapt to the loss of sensory hair cells by turning up the sensitivity to sound. This would explain why some people are oversensitive to loud noise.
Tinnitus also could be the result of neural circuits thrown out of balance when damage in the inner ear changes signaling activity in the auditory cortex, the part of the brain that processes sound. Or it could be the result of abnormal interactions between neural circuits. The neural circuits involved in hearing aren’t solely dedicated to processing sound. They also communicate with other parts of the brain, such as the limbic region, which regulates mood and emotion.
What should I do if I have tinnitus?
If your doctor cannot find any medical condition responsible for your tinnitus, you may be referred to an otolaryngologist (commonly called an ear, nose, and throat doctor, or an ENT). The ENT will physically examine your head, neck, and ears and test your hearing to determine whether you have any hearing loss along with the tinnitus. You might also be referred to a hearing specialist who can also measure your hearing and evaluate your tinnitus.
What if the sounds in my ear do not go away?
Are there treatments that can help me?
Can I do anything to prevent tinnitus or keep it from getting worse?
Noise-induced hearing loss, the result of damage to the sensory hair cells of the inner ear, is one of the most common causes. Anything you can do to limit your exposure to loud noise—by moving away from the sound, turning down the volume, or wearing earplugs or earmuffs—will help prevent it or keep symptoms from getting worse.