What is ringing in the ears (tinnitus)?

Ringing in the Ears (Tinnitus)

Ringing in the ears (tinnitus): Overview

Many people have ringing (or roaring, hissing, buzzing, or tinkling) in their ears now and then. The sound usually lasts only a few minutes. Ringing in the ears that doesn't get better or go away is called tinnitus. You may hear a sound, such as a ringing or roaring, that doesn't come from your surroundings. (So nobody else can hear it.) The sound may keep time with your heartbeat, or it may keep pace with your breathing. It may be constant, or it may come and go. Tinnitus is most common in people older than age 40. Men have it more often than women do.

There are two main types of tinnitus.

  • Pulsatile (like a heartbeat) tinnitus is often caused by sounds created by muscle movements near the ear, changes in the ear canal, or blood flow (vascular) problems in the face or neck. You may hear sounds such as your own pulse or the contractions of your muscles.
  • Nonpulsatile tinnitus is caused by problems in the nerves involved with hearing. You may hear sounds in one or both ears. Sometimes this type of tinnitus is described as coming from inside the head.

The most common cause of tinnitus is hearing loss that occurs with aging (presbycusis). But it can also be caused by living or working around loud noises (acoustic trauma). Tinnitus can occur with all types of hearing loss. It may be a symptom of almost any ear disorder. Other possible causes of tinnitus include:

  • Medicines, especially antibiotics or large amounts of aspirin.
  • Injuries. This may include whiplash or a direct hit to the ear or head.
  • Blood flow problems. These include carotid atherosclerosis, arteriovenous (AV) malformations, and high blood pressure.
  • Nerve problems, such as multiple sclerosis or migraine headache.

Most tinnitus that comes and goes doesn't need medical treatment. You may need to see your doctor if tinnitus occurs with other symptoms, doesn't get better or go away, or is in only one ear. There may not be a cure for tinnitus, but your doctor can help you learn how to live with the problem. Your doctor can also make sure that a more serious problem isn't causing your symptoms.

Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)

Tinnitus is the sensation of hearing a sound, such as a ringing or roaring, that does not come from a person's surroundings (nobody else can hear it). The sound may be continuous or come and go, it may keep time with the person's heartbeat, or it may coincide with the person's breathing.

To the person who is affected with tinnitus, the sound seems to come from one ear or from inside the head. In rare cases, clicking or crackling sounds or other noises in the ear can be heard by the doctor as well as by the person who has tinnitus.

Normal sounds that come from a person's surroundings are "heard" when sound waves strike the eardrum. The eardrum vibrates, and those vibrations enter the inner ear, where they stimulate nerve cells to create signals that travel along the acoustic nerve to the brain. The brain then translates the signals into patterns that a person recognizes as sounds.

Tinnitus occurs when there is no external source of sound waves. For reasons that are not understood, the brain receives signals, either from inside the head or from within the ear, that cause the sensation of hearing a sound.

Tinnitus is most noticeable (and bothersome) when the affected person is in a quiet environment. The condition is often treated by using background noise to mask the ringing or roaring that is caused by tinnitus.

How is tinnitus treated?

There isn't a cure for tinnitus, but your doctor can give you ideas on how to manage it. There are things you can do to ease the way it affects your life. One example is to use background noise to mask the sound. Your doctor may suggest hearing aids.

How is tinnitus diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask questions and may do tests to find the cause of your tinnitus. You might be asked when you started having ringing in your ears. Your doctor may have you take a hearing test. You may also have a CT scan or an MRI.

How can you care for tinnitus?

  • Do not smoke or use other tobacco products. Nicotine reduces blood flow to the ear and makes tinnitus worse. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
  • Talk to your doctor about whether to stop taking aspirin and similar products such as ibuprofen or naproxen.
  • Get exercise often. It can improve blood flow to the ear.

Ways to cope with noise

Some tinnitus may last a long time. To cope with noise, try to:

  • Avoid noises that you think caused your tinnitus. If you can't avoid loud noises, wear earplugs or earmuffs.
  • Ignore the sound by paying attention to other things.
  • Relax using biofeedback, meditation, or yoga. Feeling stressed and being tired can make tinnitus worse.
  • Play music or white noise to help you sleep. Background noise may cover up the noise that you hear in your ears. You can buy a machine that makes soothing sounds, such as ocean waves.

What is tinnitus?

When you have tinnitus, it means you hear a sound, such as ringing or roaring, that doesn't come from your surroundings. No one else can hear it. You may hear the sound all the time. It also may come and go. It may keep time with your heartbeat or your breathing.

What causes tinnitus?

The most common cause of tinnitus is hearing loss that happens with aging. You can also have this problem if you live or work around loud noises. Tinnitus can happen with all types of hearing loss. It can be a symptom of almost any ear problem.

Tinnitus: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You have symptoms of a stroke. These may include:
    • Sudden numbness, tingling, weakness, or loss of movement in your face, arm, or leg, especially on only one side of your body.
    • Sudden vision changes.
    • Sudden trouble speaking.
    • Sudden confusion or trouble understanding simple statements.
    • Sudden problems with walking or balance.
    • A sudden, severe headache that is different from past headaches.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You develop other symptoms. These may include hearing loss (or worse hearing loss), balance problems, dizziness, nausea, or vomiting.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • Your tinnitus moves from both ears to one ear.
  • Your hearing loss gets worse within 1 day after an ear injury.
  • Your tinnitus or hearing loss does not get better within 1 week after an ear injury.
  • Your tinnitus bothers you enough that you want to take medicines to help you cope with it.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.