When it seems like you’re hearing noise or ringing that isn’t occurring externally, then you may have a symptom called tinnitus. An estimated 15 to 20 percent of people have this symptom, which is a sign of an underlying condition such as ear injury, age-related hearing loss or a circulatory system disorder.
Tinnitus isn’t usually a serious sign. It may become worse for older individuals, but the symptom may be treated once the underlying cause is identified.
Symptoms of Tinnitus
Tinnitus may sound like the following noises in your ears:
The sound may have a low or high pitch and seem quiet or be loud enough to interfere with your ability to concentrate. Tinnitus may come and go or be present continuously.
The two types of tinnitus are:
- Subjective tinnitus. This type of tinnitus is the most common and is a sound that only you can hear. Subjective tinnitus may be caused by problems with the hearing nerves or auditory pathways, which is the part of the brain that interprets nerve signals as sounds.
- Objective tinnitus. This type of tinnitus may be heard by the physician during an examination. Objective tinnitus may be caused by muscle contractions, a middle ear bone condition, or a blood vessel problem.
Causes of Tinnitus
Tinnitus may be caused or worsened by a variety of conditions. However, the most common cause of tinnitus is inner ear hair cell damage. When the delicate hairs in the inner ear move in relation to the pressure of sound waves, trigger cells release an electrical signal through the auditory nerve that travels to the brain. If the hairs in the inner ear are bent or broken, they may send random electrical impulses to the brain, causing tinnitus.
The following conditions may lead to tinnitus:
- Exposure to loud noise from music devices, heavy equipment, chain saws and firearms.
- Age-related hearing loss may start around age 60 and cause tinnitus.
- Earwax blockage may be too hard to wash away naturally and cause hearing loss or irritation of the eardrum.
- Ear bone changes, such as when the bones in the middle ear become stiff, may be caused by abnormal bone growth.
Other less common causes of tinnitus:
- Meniere’s disease
- Acoustic neuroma
- TMJ disorders
- Head or neck injuries
- Muscle spasms in the inner ear
- Eustachian tube dysfunction
- High blood pressure
- Turbulent blood flow
- Head and neck tumors
- Malformation of capillaries
Tinnitus may also be caused or worsened by the following medications:
- Cancer medications
- Water pills
- Quinine medications
An individual’s risk of tinnitus may increase if they are:
- Continuously exposed to loud noise
- Diagnosed with cardiovascular conditions
When to Consult a Doctor
Patients experiencing the following symptoms should see their doctor:
- Tinnitus occurs suddenly or without an apparent cause
- You feel dizzy or have hearing loss
- You had an upper respiratory infection that was followed by tinnitus
During the initial visit, the physician will conduct various tests to identify potential causes of tinnitus and recommend treatment.