Tinnitus is a ringing in the ears that occurs without the presence of external noise. It is also described as a roaring, hissing, whooshing, whistling, chirping or buzzing sound. The severity varies by individual; for some it is an occasional nuisance that occurs sporadically, while it can be a constant, full-blown distraction to others.

Tinnitus Types & Causes

Tinnitus is considered a symptom of an underlying condition rather than a disease, with many possible causes. There are two types of tinnitus: subjective and objective.

As the name suggests, subjective tinnitus can only be heard by the person suffering from it. It is the most common type of tinnitus, and occurs as a result of problems in the outer, middle or inner ear. It can also be caused by problems with the auditory nerves or pathways to the brain.

Objective tinnitus is a rare form that can be heard by others in close proximity, e.g. a physician during an examination with a stethoscope. It is usually caused by a blood vessel disorder or inner ear condition.

Many conditions can trigger tinnitus, or worsen the symptoms. When the inner ear cells are damaged, they can allow random electrical pulses to reach the brain, where they are interpreted as sound. Reasons for this vary, and include age-related hearing loss, noise exposure, earwax buildup, otosclerosis, a stiffening of the middle ear bones caused by excess bone growth. Other common causes include Meniere’s disease, thyroid conditions, TMJ disorders, acoustic neuroma, head or neck trauma, atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, tumors, fibromyalgia, and ototoxic medications.

Treating & Preventing Tinnitus

Managing tinnitus focuses on identifying and treating the underlying health condition causing your symptoms. This may be as simple as removing impacted earwax or changing medications. Most forms of tinnitus can’t be cured, though – necessitating noise suppression therapy and other masking techniques designed to draw attention away from the ringing in the ears. This can be accomplished with white noise machines, fans, humidifiers, or air conditions. More severe cases might require tinnitus retraining, utilizing electronic devices with individually programmed music tones that cover up specific tinnitus frequencies. Avoid irritants that worsen tinnitus such as caffeine, alcohol and tobacco, and limit your exposure to loud noises. Try practicing relaxation techniques, as stress can worsen symptoms.

Preventive steps can at least help reduce the severity of symptoms. Always use hearing protection when exposed to loud music, whether in the workplace or during leisure and recreational activities. When listening to music, especially through ear buds and headphones, keep the volume turned down low. And take good care of yourself physically – get plenty of exercise and eat right.