Tinnitus: Ringing in the ears
What is tinnitus?
Tinnitus or ringing in the ears, is the sensation of hearing ringing, buzzing, hissing, chirping, whistling or other sounds that are not due to external noise. The perceived sounds can be intermittent or continuous, and can vary in loudness. It is often worse when background noise is low, so you may be most aware of it at night when you're trying to fall asleep in a quiet room. In rare cases, the sound beats in sync with your heart.
Tinnitus is very common. One in seven people in the UK have experienced tinnitus. Long-term tinnitus affects about one in 100 people.
There are two types of tinnitus:
- Subjective tinnitus: When the sounds a sufferer hears may be perceived as very loud and only heard by them.
- Objective tinnitus: A rare condition when the sounds can be heard by the person with the condition and a healthcare provider, for example using a stethoscope.
For most people the condition is merely an annoyance. In severe cases, however, tinnitus can cause people to have difficulty concentrating and sleeping. It may eventually interfere with work and personal relationships, resulting in psychological distress. This is how Will.I.Am - one of the members of the Black Eyed Peas - describes the condition: "I can't be quiet as that's when I notice the ringing in my ears. There's always a beep there every day, all day. Like now. I don't know exactly how long I've had this but it's gradually got worse."
Although tinnitus is often associated with hearing loss, it does not cause the loss, nor does a hearing loss cause tinnitus. In fact, most people with tinnitus experience no difficulty hearing, and in a few cases they even become so acutely sensitive to sound that they must take steps to muffle or mask external noises.
Some instances of tinnitus are caused by infections or blockages in the ear, and the tinnitus can disappear once the underlying cause is treated. Frequently, however, tinnitus continues after the underlying condition is treated. In such a case other therapies - both conventional and complementary - may bring significant relief by either decreasing or covering up the unwanted sound.
What causes tinnitus?
Prolonged exposure to loud sounds is the most common cause of tinnitus. Up to 90% of people with tinnitus have some level of noise-induced hearing loss. The noise causes permanent damage to the sound-sensitive cells of the cochlea, a spiral-shaped organ in the inner ear. Carpenters, pilots, rock musicians and street repair workers are among those whose jobs put them at risk, as are people who work with chain saws, guns or other loud devices or who repeatedly listen to loud music. A single exposure to a sudden extremely loud noise can also cause tinnitus.