Tinnitus: That Ringing In Your Ears

by Thomas A. Powers, PhD


Tinnitus is generally described as a ringing in your ears.  It sometimes is referred to as a “phantom sound" due to the perception of a sound when there is no external sound present. It may be perceived in one or both ears.  The sound may be constant or it may come and go. In some small number of people, the tinnitus is so bothersome that it affects  their ability to concentrate on a task.  The sound perception can take many forms, such as roaring, hissing, buzzing, or clicking.  It can also be described by the loudness or the pitch of the sound; soft or loud, low pitch or high pitched. It has been reported that approximately 10-20 percent of the US population has experienced tinnitus, which amounts to over 30 million people.

Tinnitus is not a disease but an indicator that something may be wrong with the auditory system or another underlying medical condition. There are two type of tinnitus, subjective and objective.  Subjective tinnitus is tinnitus only you can hear and is usually caused by an issue with the outer and middle ear, the auditory nerve, and the cortex (part of the brain where the auditory signals are processed). Objective tinnitus is tinnitus that others can hear, such as your doctor during an examination. This type of tinnitus is usually caused by a blood vessel problem, middle ear bone problem, or muscle contractions.

If you are bothered by your tinnitus, you should see your primary care doctor, especially if your tinnitus occurs suddenly or if you notice hearing loss and dizziness with your tinnitus. Your doctor may refer you to an ear nose and throat specialist or an audiologist to test your hearing and evaluate your tinnitus.

Tinnitus can be caused by several health-related issues including noise induced hearing loss, ear and sinus infections, Meniere’s disease, and diseases of the heart and blood vessels. Noise induced hearing loss is common among people who work in high noise environments such as factories or construction, road crews, or musicians.

Some medications can cause tinnitus or make its perception worse.  These include some antibiotics (e.g. erythromycin, vancomycin, neomycin), aspirin in high doses, cancer medications, water pills, certain anti-depressants, as well as nicotine, caffeine, and some herbal supplements.

While certain medical conditions can cause tinnitus, many people get tinnitus for no obvious reason.  Tinnitus can have a significant impact on your quality of life, which may include sleeplessness, fatigue, stress, and trouble concentrating. 

In most cases tinnitus cannot be prevented but there are some things you can do that may prevent some types of tinnitus.  Wear ear protection when around loud noise such as music events, fireworks, firearms or loud work environments.  Turn down the volume of music you are listening to on headphone or ear inserts.  Take care of your cardiovascular health.

Tinnitus can improve with the treatment of an underlying medical issue (if present), or may be relieved with the following:

  • hearing aids (if you also have a hearing loss)
  • counseling
  • use of a wearable masking device
  • use of a tabletop masking device next to your bed to improve your ability to sleep

Research continues into tinnitus causes as well as treatments, and while there is no cure at the present time, significant progress has been made on the ability to reduce the adverse effect of tinnitus.

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