What Is Tinnitus?

Tinnitus is noise that originates within the ear rather than from the outside environment. This may affect one or both ears.

The sounds have been described variously as a “ringing” sound, a “buzzing” sound, a “humming noise, “like running water”, a “whistling” sound or like the “sound from a seashell held close to the ear.”

There are several types of tinnitus:

  • Tonal tinnitus is often called “ringing in the ears.” This type of tinnitus produces a continuous sound, like a single note playing over and over.
  • Pulsatile tinnitus, in which the tinnitus sounds are intermittent, continuous, or pulsating in time with the heartbeat.
  • Tinnitus in which the sound is a ringing, buzzing, roaring, whistling, or hissing noise.
  • Less common tinnitus, in which the sounds are described as beeping, Morse code type of signals, or even a musical notes.
  • Less common still is tinnitus experienced as several different types of noises at the same time.

In a rare, unusual type of tinnitus, known as “objective tinnitus,” the noise is heard not only by the affected individual but also by others.

Other Symptoms Associated With Tinnitus

In addition to the noises associated with tinnitus, certain other symptoms may accompany this condition. These include:

  • Dizziness
  • Pain in the ear
  • A sense of fullness in the ears
  • Headache

Who Gets Tinnitus?

Tinnitus may affect anyone. However, it is more common with increasing age. People who are prone to hardening of the arteries are at greater risk for tinnitus than the general population. In addition, individuals who work in noisy surroundings are also at greater risk for developing tinnitus. But in fact there are many causes for tinnitus.

Is Tinnitus Serious?

Tinnitus is typically not a serious condition; however, it is frequently accompanied by hearing loss. Many people with tinnitus are concerned that they may become completely deaf; however, tinnitus does not cause deafness.

Others fear that they have a brain tumor or that they have some form of mental illness. While possible, such underlying conditions are most unlikely and rarely found in people with tinnitus.

Is Depression Associated With Tinnitus?

Some people believe that depression produces tinnitus and if the depression is treated, their tinnitus will be relieved. Most experts believe that the opposite is more likely the case; namely, that tinnitus may cause a depression. Therefore, treatment is required for the depression.

There are effective treatments for depression, including antidepressant drugs and “talk” therapy. Some research studies suggest that certain antidepressant medications actually worsen the symptoms of tinnitus.

Nice To Know:

Objective Tinnitus

Objective tinnitus is a much rarer form of tinnitus and consists of head noises that are audible to other people in addition to the sufferer. The noises are usually caused by:

  • A circulatory problem, like an aneurysm or tumor in a blood vessel
  • Repeated contractions of the muscles in the middle ear
  • Inner ear structural defects

With objective tinnitus, an examiner can hear the sound heard by the patient by using a stethoscope. Benign problems, such as the noise from a problem with the jaw joint, openings of the eustachian tubes (the passage that connects the ear and the back of the nose), or repetitive muscle contractions may be the cause of the objective tinnitus. Other causes are the pulsing flow of blood through the carotid artery in the neck, or the continuous hum of normal blood outflow through the jugular vein.

There are two relatively tiny muscles in the middle ear attached to the tiny bones in the ear. These muscles contract briefly in response to loud or sudden noises in order to protect the inner ear from over-stimulation. On occasion, one or both of these muscles may begin to contract and relax rhythmically for no apparent reason. Because these muscles are attached to the tiny ear bones, contractions may result in repetitious clicking sounds.

In rare cases, rhythmic muscle contractions or spasms may affect one of the throat muscles attached to the eustachian tube. This is called palatal myoclonus and often produces an annoying clicking noise.

In some very severe cases, objective tinnitus may be an early sign of increased pressure in the fluid that surrounds that brain and spinal cord (cerebrospinal fluid). A pulsating sound may result from a blocked artery, an aneurysm, a tumor in a blood vessel, or other blood vessel disorders.

Facts About Tinnitus

  • Tinnitus is a common problem.
  • Tinnitus affects about 17 percent of the general population around the world.
  • Approximately 44 million people in the United States have tinnitus.
  • Tinnitus may be associated with hearing loss.
  • The noises related to tinnitus seem loud to the affected person. They are also described as annoying and unpleasant with hissing, whistling, or roaring sound qualities.
  • Many people with tinnitus have difficulty with their normal day-to-day activities because of their symptoms. Tinnitus may affect overall quality of life.
  • The exact underlying cause of tinnitus is not fully understood. Many cases occur as the result of another underlying disorder such as ear infections, blockage of the ear canal, Meniere’s disease, etc.
  • Diagnosis of tinnitus and identification of the underlying disorder is important as treatment of the underlying problem may improve tinnitus symptoms.
  • One treatment for tinnitus is aimed at masking the unpleasant sounds with other more pleasant tones.


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