Tinnitus (“TIN-a-tus” or “Tin-EYE-tus”) refers to “ringing in the ears” when no other sound is present. Tinnitus can sound like hissing, roaring, pulsing, whooshing, chirping, whistling, or clicking. Tinnitus can occur in one ear or both ears. Below are some commonly asked questions about tinnitus.
Is tinnitus a common problem?
Yes. Almost everyone at one time or another has experienced brief periods of mild ringing or other sounds in the ear. Some people have more annoying and constant types of tinnitus. One-third of all adults experience tinnitus at some time in their lives. About 10%–15% of adults have prolonged tinnitus requiring medical evaluation. The exact cause of tinnitus is often not known. One thing is certain: Tinnitus is not imaginary.
Is tinnitus a disease?
No. Just as fever or headache accompanies many different illnesses, tinnitus is a symptom common to many problems. If you have tinnitus, chances are the cause will remain a mystery.
What causes tinnitus?
Conditions that might cause tinnitus include:
- Hearing loss
- Ménière’s disease
- Loud noise exposure
- Migraine headaches
- Head injury
- Drugs or medicines that are toxic to hearing
- Too much wax in the ear
- Certain types of tumors
- Too much coffee
- Smoking cigarettes
How is the cause of tinnitus diagnosed?
Tinnitus is a symptom of a problem. The first thing you should do is to try to find out the underlying cause. You should have a medical examination with special attention given to conditions associated with tinnitus. You should also receive a full hearing evaluation by an audiologist to see if hearing loss may be causing your tinnitus.
How is tinnitus treated?
The most effective treatment for tinnitus is to eliminate the underlying cause. Tinnitus, in some cases, can be a symptom of a treatable medical condition. Unfortunately, in many cases, the cause of tinnitus cannot be identified, or medical or surgical treatment is not an option. In these cases, the tinnitus can still be managed using a variety of other methods. Be sure to discuss with your doctor any medical treatment options before considering tinnitus management.
Tinnitus management can include:
- Electrical stimulation
- Relaxation therapy
- Habituation therapies
- Tinnitus maskers
- Sound machines
Audiologists and otolaryngologists (ear, nose, and throat doctors, or ENTs) routinely collaborate in identifying the cause of tinnitus and providing treatment and management. A treatment that is useful and successful for one person may not be appropriate for another.
Will a hearing aid help my tinnitus?
If you have a hearing loss, there is a good chance that a hearing aid will both relieve your tinnitus and help you hear. Your audiologist can assist with the selection, fitting, and purchase of the most appropriate hearing aids for you. Your audiologist will also help you learn how to get the best use out of your hearing aids.
What is a tinnitus masker?
Tinnitus maskers look like hearing aids and produce sounds that “mask,” or cover up, the tinnitus. The masking sound acts as a distracter and is usually more tolerable than the tinnitus.
The characteristics of the tinnitus (pitch, loudness, location, etc.) that you describe for the audiologist determine what kind of masking noise might bring relief. If you have a hearing loss as well as tinnitus, the masker and the hearing aid may operate together as one instrument.
Like all other treatments for tinnitus, maskers are useful for some, but not all people. As with a hearing aid, a careful evaluation by an audiologist will help decide whether a tinnitus masker will help you.