(Ringing in the Ear)

What is tinnitus?
Causes, treatments, and prevention of ringing in the ear.

One well-known effect of overexposure to noise is hearing loss, or the inability to hear certain sounds. But another risk is a phenomenon that is just the opposite: perceiving sounds when there are none. This perception of sound when no external sound is present is called tinnitus, or "ringing in the ear."

What Does Tinnitus Sound Like?

Composizione VIII by Wassily Kandinsky, c.1923 People with tinnitus hear noises in their ears. Each person with tinnitus experiences it differently. "Tinnitus" is from the Latin word for "ringing," and to some people the noise does indeed sound like ringing. Others describe their ear noise as roaring, rushing, hissing, chirping, beeping, buzzing, whistling, or clicking. The sound might be high-pitched, low-pitched, or multi-toned, or it might sound like static. It might seem to be in one ear, both ears, or inside the head. The sound might be constant, or it might come and go. It might be just barely noticeable, or it might seem screamingly loud.

Nearly everyone experiences ear noise; in total silence, most people will report hearing faint buzzing, pulsing, or whirring sounds, the normal compensatory activity of the nerves in the hearing pathway. It's when these sounds are intrusive that it becomes tinnitus.

What Causes Tinnitus?

Tinnitus may be caused by various drugs, ear disorders, infections, injuries, or psychiatric disorders, but the most common cause by far is loud noise, such as from explosions, gunfire, amplified music, farm machinery, or emergency sirens. Many rock musicians develop tinnitus, and it is common among combat veterans. Ninety percent of people with tinnitus also have some degree of hearing loss.

Like hearing loss, tinnitus can occur temporarily, brought on by an episode of too much noise, or it may happen after years of overexposure to noise. It can appear suddenly or gradually.

What Is It Like to Have Tinnitus?

Tinnitus is a subjective experience. Similar to the experience of pain, the annoyance of tinnitus cannot be measured objectively. Some people hardly notice the noise unless they consciously turn their attention to it. For others it may disrupt sleep and concentration, and can cause depression and emotional shifts. According to the American Tinnitus Association, about 25% of those with tinnitus find it disturbing enough that they seek medical attention for it, and for about 4% of sufferers, it is so debilitating that it seriously interferes with normal daily functioning. For a few people the experience is so agonizing that they are driven to consider suicide.

How Is Tinnitus Treated?

Tinnitus is a symptom, not a disease, and there is no cure. Even in some cases where the auditory nerves have been severed (during the removal of a tumor from the inner ear, for example), so that the patient loses all physical hearing, tinnitus can persist.

There is a range of treatment options for chronic tinnitus; no one treatment works for everyone. Many treatments focus on helping the person learn to coexist with it, using a variety of stress management and relaxation techniques (including hypnosis), counseling, and sometimes antidepressants or other drugs. Some people find it helpful to mask the ringing in the ear by using white noise, and there are in-ear white noise devices made for this purpose.

Two treatments, tinnitus retraining therapy and Neuromonics, combine directive counseling with white noise or music that is individually engineered for the patient's audiological profile, to teach the brain circuitry to filter out the tinnitus signals. These treatments take six months to two years and cost several thousand dollars.

Temporary Ringing in the Ear?

If you experience temporary ringing of the ears from an exposure to loud noise, consider it a warning sign. First, immediately leave the loud environment, or put in ear plugs if that is not possible. Next, rest your ears for 24 hours, meaning no loud sounds at all, to give your ears a chance to recover. And lastly, next time you are in a similar environment in the future, be sure to wear hearing protection. There are plenty of tinnitus sufferers who will tell you that you don't want their nightmare.

Colorfields East by Scott Sandell

Tinnitus Experiences from Readers

Submarine sailor - 10 kHz transformer 
For about three years cumulatively, between 1963 and 1969, I worked near a 10 kHz noise source; a transformer. About ten years after I got out of the US …

Sound Engineer
My ear has a slight hiss
Hi, I am a musician and sound engineer since I was 18 years old (now 37). I am "all ears", literally, and I have been fully aware of my audio perception …

I suffer hyperacusis. My ears are hypersensitive to certain noises. Certain noises make my ears HURT! Excruciating TORTURE! People popping, clicking & …

Loud rock concerts and ear bud headphones 
Loud rock concerts were the cause of my tinnitus. But watch out for ear bud headphones! I have been experiencing tinnitus in my ears (mostly the right …

Sounds like Morse Code to me! 
I recently, as in the past few weeks, suddenly started hearing a beeping sound in my left ear. At first I thought a machine was left on in my apartment …

Heartbeat Sound in Ear 
I recently just found out through my doctor that I have Tinnitus. I've been hearing this faint thumping sound only in my right ear for the past couple …

I'm not sure this is Tinnitus? 
Once a week or so, I experience a low pitched tone in my ear. It is localized to either ear. Occasionally it is accompanied by a small degree of pain. …

Siren in my Ear 
I just started noticing this sound in my right ear. It began about three days ago and I noticed it at night. At first I thought it was my dog's nose …

It was physical. 
About 30 minutes ago, for about 2.5-3 seconds, I felt like there was a fly in both my ears. The fly would have been as wide as my earhole but with carpenter …

Hissing in my ear 
I suddenly started getting an extra sound that I could hear about six months ago. I visited the doctor who referred me to an ENT consultant. I was told …

Tinnitus not so bad 
I have Tinnitus for probably last 20 years, but I notice it only if I think about it. It is a high frequency hissing in my ears. Otherwise, it is not a …

Mosquito sound in my ears 
i wish this could go away. it sounds like flies or mosquitoes in my ears. soon as i lay my head on the pillow the sound starts. sometimes i just lay quiet …

Ringing in my ears make me pull my hair out... 
I have Tinnitus. I have had it for as long as I can remember. Waves, banging, ticking, clicking, buzzing, pulsing, the whole sha-bang! I hear different …

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