What is tinnitus?

Explaining that buzzing, roaring or whistling noise in your ear.

Written by Jenny Stevens
close up shot of the ear of a dark-skinned young man

Tinnitus is a condition where people experience noises in the ears or head when no physical noise is present. These sounds may dominate attention and can interfere with other important behavioural activities, emotions or perceptions.

Each individual’s tinnitus experience is unique, but it is commonly described as ringing, buzzing, humming, roaring or whistling noises in the ears. The term tinnitus is Latin in origin and means ringing or tinkling like a bell.

Here are a few things you should know about this condition.

How common is tinnitus?

Approximately 17 to 20 per cent of the general population experiences some form of tinnitus, varying from mild to severe. For people over the age of 55 the incidence increases to over 30 per cent. For many people the tinnitus experienced is of mild annoyance and only a temporary experience. It is also common for tinnitus to fluctuate and it can be triggered by anxiety and stress. Tinnitus can be an unpleasant condition that may have a negative impact on work, family and social life, affecting your quality of life.

What causes tinnitus?

Tinnitus can be caused by a variety of factors, making each individual case unique. Exposure to loud noise, middle ear infections, viral infections, otosclerosis (a form of bone overgrowth in the middle ear), some drugs, and undiagnosed medical problems are just some of the causes of tinnitus. A referral to a full-service diagnostic audiology clinic for a range of tests is strongly recommended to rule out an underlying medical pathology or ear disease.

Noise exposure has long been recognised as a major cause of hearing loss and more recently linked to tinnitus. Today we live in a world of increasing sound and background noise. From the hum of a computer to increased transportation, manufacturing and energy production, the daily increased noise level does not come without a cost to those who are exposed to unprotected levels above 82 dbHL.

Medical conditions associated with tinnitus may include but are not exclusive to:

External ear – Obstruction of the external ear canal by wax, foreign bodies or swelling may produce a conductive hearing loss or pressure on the eardrum. This frequently results in a pulsating type of tinnitus.

Muscle spasms in the middle ear – Tinnitus may result from muscle spasms in the middle ear, eustachian tube dysfunction, or abnormalities in the blood vessels surrounding the ear.

Middle ear problems – Allergy, infection, injury, scar tissue or impaired motion of the three middle ear bones that inhibit function in the middle ear may result in tinnitus.

Vascular tinnitus – This is the restriction of the major blood vessels associated with the middle and inner ear, reducing blood supply to the brain.

Otosclerosis – Patients with otosclerosis may be aware of tinnitus in some degree. The amount of tinnitus is not necessarily related to the degree or type of hearing impairment.

What can increase your tinnitus levels?

Evidence has shown that the following may increase tinnitus levels: alcohol, caffeine, aspirin, a high salt diet, chocolate, Coca-Cola, dental problems, tempro-mandibular joint (TMJ), anxiety, stress, fatigue and some drugs. Exposure to loud sounds such as lawn mowers, rock concerts, power tools, iPods and rifle shooting may also increase subjective tinnitus levels.

Is there a cure?

Although there is no cure for tinnitus, with appropriate treatment a patient can successfully learn to manage their tinnitus and limit the emotional effects. A person may still be aware of their tinnitus, but it will no longer have a debilitating effect on their work and personal life.

Tinnitus usually occurs within the same region as a hearing loss, or an octave or two either side. Tinnitus loudness levels, including the disturbance level, need to be identified to recommend appropriate treatment. A comprehensive tinnitus assessment in a diagnostic audiology clinic is recommended to identify an individual’s tinnitus characteristics.

How do you treat it?

Some treatment options might include:

  • Lifestyle changes
  • Changes to diet
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Cognitive behavior therapy
  • Tinnitus treatment including counseling
Written by Jenny Stevens

Jenny Stevens is an audiologist with over 18 years experience. She is currently the Clinical Director and CEO at Attune Hearing.


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