Whether it’s a ringing, buzzing, roaring, whistling or a hissing noise, tinnitus (TIN-i-tus) is the label for those sounds you hear in your ear or head. It can range in severity from being only mildly annoying or temporary to being so loud and constant that it interferes with your ability to concentrate or get a good night’s sleep.
Occasionally tinnitus may be a sign of something serious, but usually it’s not. Still, the more irritating tinnitus becomes, the more it may result in fatigue and sleep problems, unwanted stress, memory problems, anxiety, depression, and irritability. For most people with tinnitus, there’s no cure. However, various management strategies may help reduce the amount of noise you hear, distract your attention from the tinnitus, or help you
find ways to mask the noise.
Hearing loss and damage
Tinnitus isn’t a disease. Rather, it’s a symptom of something wrong with the hearing mechanism, hearing nerves, or part of the brain that processes sound. Most of the time, tinnitus is believed to be the result of damage to cells of the inner ear. Tiny delicate hairs in your inner ear move in relation to sound waves. This movement sends signals to your brain. Your brain interprets these signals as sound. If the tiny hairs become bent or broken — usually as a result of exposure to loud noises or age-related hearing loss — they may send random signals to the brain, resulting in the sensation of sound when there is none. When tinnitus develops due to hearing loss or damage — with no correctable underlying cause — management generally focuses on finding ways to reduce the amount of irritation that tinnitus causes. More than one method may need to be tried — or a combination of strategies may be necessary.
Sound therapy is one technique, which may include:
- Hearing aids — If you have hearing loss and tinnitus, hearing aids may help. Hearing aids help you hear the sounds around you better, which may reduce your awareness of tinnitus.
- Using a masking noise — This may include a small device you wear in your ear that emits pleasant sounds — such as soft, steady noise, tones or music — that cover your tinnitus. These can be combined with hearing aids in
a single device. Tabletop sound machines can be used in your bedroom so that you don’t notice your tinnitus as you sleep. A fan or soft noise from an FM radio tuned between stations may achieve a similar result.
- Tinnitus retraining therapy — This involves listening to a low-level steady noise, which over time may desensitize you to the tinnitus so that you no longer notice it unless you pay attention to it. This is usually reserved for more severe tinnitus, and is done as part of a more comprehensive long-term tinnitus management program that includes counseling. There are numerous tinnitus retraining clinics throughout the U.S.
- Other management methods:
- Counseling — Cognitive behavioral therapy with a trained professional can help you reframe your view of tinnitus so that it causes less distress.
- Managing sleep problems, anxiety, stress and depression — These often go hand in hand with severe tinnitus. Learning how to manage them may help improve your ability to tolerate tinnitus. Medications commonly used
for depression or anxiety may help reduce tinnitus severity — and may also help by improving your mood.
- Preventing it from getting worse — Turn music volume down or use earplugs or hearing protectors whenever you’re around loud noises.
Tinnitus or a worsening of tinnitus can have an underlying cause. Sometimes, when the cause can be addressed, tinnitus may diminish or go away. Tinnitus can be a side effect of numerous drugs. If tinnitus occurs or worsens after starting a new drug, talk to your doctor about adjusting the dose or finding another option. Additional underlying causes may include excessive earwax, problems with the neck vertebrae, the joint connecting your
jaw to your skull — called the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) — allergies, Meniere’s disease, middle ear fluid or thyroid problems. Tinnitus that your doctor can hear with a stethoscope (objective tinnitus) may have an underlying cause such as cardiovascular disease or other blood vessel problems, high blood pressure, or tumors of the head and neck. If you have bothersome tinnitus, talk with an ear, nose and throat doctor or an audiologist for assistance. When the tiny, delicate hairs in your inner ear become bent or broken, they send random signals to the brain, resulting in the sensation of sound when there is none.