Do you experience ringing or other noises in one or both of your ears that you can’t find the origin of the sound and no one else can hear it? You may be experiencing tinnitus. It is a very common problem that affects 15-20% of our population and is especially common in the elderly. It is usually caused by an underlying condition, such as age-related hearing loss, an ear injury, a side effect of a medication or a problem with the circulatory system. For many people, tinnitus improves with treatment of the underlying problem or with other treatments that reduce or mask the noise, making the ringing less noticeable.
Though tinnitus is usually described as a ringing in the ears when no external ringing is actually present, it can also cause other types of phantom noises in the ears, including:
Subjective tinnitus, or noises that only you can hear, is most common. The noises of tinnitus vary in pitch from a low roar to a high squeal and you may hear it in one or both ears. At times, the noise can be so loud that you can have difficulty concentrating or even hearing external sounds, like people trying to talk to you. It may be present all the time or it may come and go. In rare cases, tinnitus can occur as a whooshing sound or rhythmic pulsing and this is called pulsatile tinnitus. With pulsatile tinnitus, your doctor may be able to hear your tinnitus when he or she does an examination. This type of tinnitus is known as objective tinnitus.
Tinnitus can begin or be worsened by a number of issues and in many cases, an exact cause may never be found. The most common causes of tinnitus are:
- Hearing loss
- Ear infection
- Ear canal blockage
- Head or neck injuries.
Some less common causes of tinnitus include other ear problems, chronic health conditions, and injuries or conditions that affect the nerves in your ear or the hearing center in your brain. Here are some of these causes:
Ménière’s disease is an inner ear disorder that may be caused by abnormal
- inner ear pressure. Tinnitus can be an early indicator of Ménière’s disease.
- Eustachian tube dysfunction is where the tube in your ear connecting the middle ear to your upper throat remains expanded all the time, which makes your ear feel full.
- Muscle spasms in the inner ear can result in tinnitus, hearing loss and a feeling of fullness in the ear. This sometimes happens for no explainable reason, but can also be caused by neurologic diseases, including multiple sclerosis.
- Ear bone changes such as, stiffening of the bones in the middle ear (otosclerosis) may affect your hearing and cause tinnitus. This condition, caused by abnormal bone growth, tends to run in families.
Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders affect the joint of each side of your head in front of your ears, where the jawbone meets your skull, and can cause tinnitus.
Acoustic neuroma is a noncancerous tumor that develops on the cranial nerve which runs from your brain to your inner ear and controls balance and hearing.
Other head, neck or brain tumors can also cause tinnitus.
- Blood vessel disorders are conditions that affect the blood vessels (such as atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, or kinked or malformed blood vessels) and can cause blood to move through your veins and arteries with increased force and this blood flow change can cause tinnitus or make it more noticeable.
- Other chronic conditions, such as diabetes, migraines, thyroid problems, anemia and autoimmune disorders such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis have all been associated with tinnitus.
Tinnitus affects people differently and for some people, tinnitus can significantly affect their quality of life. If you have tinnitus, you may also experience:
- Sleep problems
- Trouble concentrating
- Memory problems
- Problems with work and family life.
Treating these linked conditions may not affect tinnitus directly, but it can help you feel better and help you better deal with it. If you have tinnitus or just a suspicious sound in your ears that no one else hears, contact your physician as there may be something he or she can do to help you.