Tinnitus is noise originating in the ear rather than in the environment.
Tinnitus is a symptom and not a specific disease. It is very common—10 to 15% of people experience some degree of tinnitus.
More than 75% of ear-related problems include tinnitus as a symptom, including injury caused by loud noises or explosions, ear infections, a blocked ear canal or eustachian tube (which connects the middle ear and the back of the nose), otosclerosis (a type of hearing loss), tumors of the middle ear, and Meniere's disease. Certain drugs (such as aminoglycoside antibiotics and high doses of aspirin) also may cause tinnitus.
Tinnitus may also occur with disorders outside the ears, including anemia, heart and blood vessel disorders such as hypertension and arteriosclerosis, an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism), and head injury. Tinnitus that is only in one ear or that pulsates is a more serious sign. A pulsating sound may result from certain tumors, a blocked artery, an aneurysm, or other blood vessel disorders.
The noise heard by people with tinnitus may be a buzzing, ringing, roaring, whistling, or hissing sound. Some people hear more complex sounds that vary over time. These sounds are more noticeable in a quiet environment and when the person is not concentrating on something else. Thus, tinnitus tends to be most disturbing to people when they are trying to sleep. However, the experience of tinnitus is highly individual. Some people are very disturbed by their symptoms, whereas others find them quite bearable.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Because a person who has tinnitus usually has some hearing loss, thorough hearing tests are performed as well as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the head and computed tomography (CT) of the temporal bone (the skull bone that contains part of the ear canal, the middle ear, and the inner ear).
Attempts to identify and treat the disorder causing tinnitus are often unsuccessful. Various techniques can help make tinnitus tolerable, although the ability to tolerate it varies from person to person. Often a hearing aid helps suppress tinnitus. Many people find relief by playing background music to mask the tinnitus. Some people use a tinnitus masker, a device worn like a hearing aid that produces a constant level of neutral sounds. For the profoundly deaf, an implant in the cochlea (the organ of hearing) may reduce tinnitus.
Last full review/revision February 2008 by Richard T. Miyamoto, MD