Tinnitus, when you hear sounds that aren’t coming from an outside source, is a common complaint. About 20% of people experience it in their lifetime. Many people find it easy to ignore and mostly notice it as background noise or at night when it’s quiet. But for some people, it can be quite bothersome—it can interrupt sleep or interfere with concentration or hearing.
Tinnitus is the perception of noise in your ear that occurs when nothing is causing the sound you’re hearing. It could sound like ringing, hissing, roaring, pulsing, whooshing, chirping, whistling, static, buzzing or clicking. Some people describe it as sounding like crickets while, for others, it’s a high-pitched ringing in the ears.
There are three types of tinnitus:
Tinnitus is not a disease, but it may be a symptom of another condition. In most cases, it is the brain’s reaction to damage in your ear, auditory nerve or other parts of your auditory system. Some of the most common causes of tinnitus are:
While many factors can cause tinnitus, it’s often impossible to identify the cause.
You can’t always prevent tinnitus since you can’t avoid causes like aging or certain illnesses and injuries. But these steps can help with some of its causes:
To evaluate your tinnitus, you’ll want to start with a comprehensive hearing evaluation by an audiologist, a medical professional specializing in hearing and related issues. At your appointment, be prepared to describe your tinnitus. For example, is it constant or intermittent, high-pitched or low-pitched, quiet or loud?
Your audiologist will take your medical history and ask about noise exposure, ear trauma, balance issues, hearing loss and your medications. An otologic exam and audiologic hearing test can help identify or rule out injury or another disease that could be causing the tinnitus and may identify any hearing loss.
The most effective treatment for tinnitus is to eliminate the underlying cause if your doctor can identify it. In those cases, treatment will vary based on what’s triggering the problem. For example, removing impacted earwax or changing medications may help reduce or eliminate tinnitus.
If the cause isn’t clear, or if it’s something that can’t be treated, there are several options to try. Here are some types of therapy to consider:
Although there is research being done regarding therapies such as neuromodulation, transcranial magnetic stimulation and vagus nerve stimulation, these treatment options are not readily available at this time.
It can also help to:
It is important to treat tinnitus, especially if it interferes with your sleep or concentration. Untreated tinnitus is linked to mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. Often, the tinnitus never goes away completely, so finding strategies for coping with symptoms is critical.