Tinnitus (Head Noise)

Tinnitus is the medical term for the perception of sound in one or both ears or in the head when no external sound is present. It is often referred to as "ringing in the ears," although some people hear hissing, roaring, whistling, chirping or clicking. Tinnitus can be intermittent or constant-with single or multiple tones-and its perceived volume can range from subtle to shattering.

Tinnitus is a symptom and not a disease. In many cases tinnitus accompanies hearing loss. Because hearing loss can be caused by noise damage to the ear, an individual can get both hearing loss and tinnitus from noise damage. However the two do not always occur together. There are many who have no measurable hearing loss but have tinnitus.

The exact physiological cause or causes of tinnitus are not known. There are, however, several likely sources, all of which are known to trigger or worsen tinnitus.

  • Noise exposure - Exposure to loud noises can damage and even destroy hair cells, called cilia, in the inner ear. Once damaged, these hair cells cannot be renewed or replaced.
  • Head and neck trauma - Physical trauma to the head and neck can induce tinnitus. Other symptoms include headaches, vertigo, and memory loss.
  • Certain disorders, such as hypo- or hyperthyroidism, Meniere's disease, Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, and thoracic outlet syndrome, can have tinnitus as a symptom. When tinnitus is a symptom of another disorder, treating the disorder can help alleviate the tinnitus.
  • Certain types of tumors
  • Wax build-up
  • Jaw misalignment
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Ototoxicity - Some medications are ototoxic, that is, the medications are harmful or damaging to the ear. Other medications will produce tinnitus as a side effect without damaging the inner ear. Effects, which can depend on the dosage of the medication, can be temporary or permanent. Before taking any medication, make sure that your prescribing physician is aware of your tinnitus, and discuss alternative medications that may be available.
  • Pulsatile tinnitus - Rare type of tinnitus that sounds like a rhythmic pulsing in the ear, typically in time with one's heartbeat. This kind of tinnitus can be caused by abnormal blood flow in arteries or veins close to the inner ear, brain tumors or irregularities in brain structure.

Although there presently is no cure, tinnitus can often be managed by treating the underlying cause or by altering reactions to it. It is important to note that treatment outcomes vary depending on the specific cause of tinnitus, how long a patient has had tinnitus and other competing health factors. These options do not work for everyone and do not work to the same degree for each individual patient.

If you have a hearing loss, there is a good chance that a hearing aid will both relieve your tinnitus and help you hear. Your audiologist can assist with the selection, fitting, and purchase of the most appropriate hearing aids for you. Certain hearing aids combine amplification with unique sound stimulation to aid the tinnitus sufferer. Combined with therapy and stress reduction, these devices can help manage tinnitus very effectively.

For those without hearing loss, sound machines that provide a steady background of comforting noise can be useful at night or in a quiet environment. Fish tanks, fans, low-volume music, and indoor waterfalls can also be helpful. Today there are even applications for portable media players (iPod or MP3 players) that offer a variety of masking sounds that may reduce the annoyance of tinnitus.