Ringing in the ears (tinnitus) is noise originating in the ear rather than in the environment. It is a symptom and not a specific disease. Tinnitus is very common—10 to 15% of people experience it to some degree.
The noise heard by people with tinnitus may be a buzzing, ringing, roaring, whistling, or hissing sound and is often associated with hearing loss. Some people hear more complex sounds that may be different at different times. These sounds are more noticeable in a quiet environment and when people are 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.
Subjective tinnitus is by far the most common type. It is caused by abnormal activity in the part of the brain responsible for processing sound (auditory cortex). Doctors do not fully understand how this abnormal activity develops.
Objective tinnitus is much less common. It represents actual noise created by structures near the ear. Other people can sometimes hear the sounds of objective tinnitus if they listen closely.
More than 75% of ear-related disorders include tinnitus as a symptom. The most common causes include
Other causes include middle ear infections, disorders that block the ear canal (such as an external ear infection [external otitis], excessive ear wax, or foreign bodies), problems with the eustachian tube (which connects the middle ear and the back of the nose) caused by allergies or other causes of obstruction, and otosclerosis (a disorder of excess bone growth in the middle ear). An uncommon but serious cause is an acoustic neuroma, a noncancerous (benign) tumor of part of the nerve leading from the inner ear.
Objective tinnitus usually involves noise from blood vessels near the ear. In such cases, the sound comes with each beat of the pulse (pulsatile). Causes include
The most common noise is the sound of rapid or turbulent blood flow in major vessels of the neck. This abnormal blood flow may occur because of a reduced red blood cell count (anemia) or a blockage of the arteries (atherosclerosis) and may be worsened in people with poorly controlled high blood pressure (hypertension). Some small tumors of the middle ear called glomus tumors are rich in blood vessels. Although the tumors are small, they are very near the sound-receiving structures of the ear, and blood flow through them can sometimes be heard (only in one ear). Sometimes, blood vessel malformations that involve abnormal connections between arteries and veins (arteriovenous malformations) develop in the membrane covering the brain (the dura). If these malformations are near the ear, the person sometimes can hear blood flowing through them.
Less commonly, spasms of muscles of the palate or the small muscles of the middle ear cause clicking sounds. These sounds do not follow the beat of the pulse. Such spasms often have no known cause but may be due to tumors, head injury, or diseases that affect the covering of nerves (for example, multiple sclerosis).
Not all tinnitus requires evaluation by a doctor. The following information can help people decide whether a doctor's evaluation is needed and help them know what to expect during the evaluation.
Certain symptoms and characteristics are cause for concern. They include
When to see a doctor:
People with warning signs should see a doctor right away. People without warning signs in whom tinnitus recently developed should call their doctor, as should people with pulsatile tinnitus. Most people with tinnitus and no warning signs have had tinnitus for a long time. They can discuss the matter with their doctor and be seen at a mutually convenient time.
What the doctor does:
Doctors first ask questions about the person's symptoms and medical history. Doctors then do a physical examination. What they find during the history and physical examination may suggest a cause of the tinnitus and the tests that may need to be done (see Table 3: Symptoms of Ear Disorders: Some Causes and Features of Tinnitus).
During the medical history, doctors ask about the following:
During the physical examination, doctors focus on examining the ears (including hearing) and the neurologic system. They also listen with a stethoscope over and near the person's ear and on the neck for sounds of objective tinnitus. The findings often suggest a cause (see Table 3: Symptoms of Ear Disorders: Some Causes and Features of Tinnitus).
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Possible tests include
Most people should have a formal hearing test done by either the doctor or a hearing specialist (audiologist). People with tinnitus in only one ear and hearing loss should have gadolinium-enhanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). People with tinnitus in only one ear and normal hearing should have an MRI if tinnitus lasts more than 6 months. People with pulsatile tinnitus often require magnetic resonance angiography (MRA—see Common Imaging Tests: Magnetic Resonance Angiography (MRA)) and sometimes angiography.
Attempts to identify and treat the disorder causing tinnitus are often unsuccessful. However, correcting any hearing loss (for example, with a hearing aid) relieves tinnitus in some people.
Various techniques can help make tinnitus tolerable, although the ability to tolerate it varies from person to person. Many people find that background sound helps mask the tinnitus and helps them fall asleep. Some people play background music. Other people use a tinnitus masker, which is 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 but is only done for people with severe to profound hearing loss in both ears. If these standard techniques are not helpful, people may want to seek treatment in clinics that specialize in the treatment of tinnitus.
Last full review/revision January 2013 by Debara L. Tucci, MD, MS