The symptoms of tinnitus
Tinnitus is a common hearing impairment that causes a ringing, buzzing or whistling sound in your ears. But why does this happen - and what can you do about it?
Nobody else can hear it, but you hear it all the time. That ringing in your ears… that's tinnitus.
So why did you get it?
The most common reason is hearing damage caused by noise.
Ever been to a concert and felt like your ears were ringing for a while after? After a loud event, it's not uncommon to get temporary tinnitus. And in that case, tinnitus is nothing more than a short-lived annoyance to most people.
But if you're exposed to loud noises for longer periods of time, you could end up noticing your tinnitus more often - having a constant ringing, buzzing or humming in your ears. The good news is that there are ways to treat tinnitus and make the sound more bearable.
What causes tinnitus?
The exact cause of tinnitus is unknown. But exposure to very loud noise for long periods at a time seems to be one of the main causes.
Tinnitus has also been associated with ear infections, earwax, ear bone changes and sensory nerve disorders. Some of these can be treated, but direct treatment does not completely remove the tinnitus symptoms.
Finally, hearing damage rooted in ageing may well cause tinnitus - just like any other part of your body, hearing gradually declines as you become older, and in some cases that leads to tinnitus.
There's no one explanation for what happens inside our ears and brains when we get tinnitus. But one theory is that when the hair cells in our ears are damaged (most often by loud noise), the circuits in the brain don't receive the signals they're expecting. So instead, the brain starts to create these signals itself, creating an illusion of sound - what we call tinnitus.
Did you know?
A 2004 study says that even people in ancient Egypt knew about tinnitus. Other research shows that the great composer Ludwig Van Beethoven had it.
While severe tinnitus can make it hard to sleep or concentrate, and may also affect your working memory, it's not dangerous. Yet some kinds of tinnitus are rooted in medical causes. The rare form called pulsatile tinnitus often stems from a medical issue and may even disappear after proper treatment.
What causes my tinnitus to act up?
There are several things that could cause your tinnitus to flare up. Tinnitus might seem worse when you're feeling tired or stressed, or if you're in a very quiet environment (because you're able to pay more attention to the ringing or buzzing). Smoking, excessive alcohol intake, some medications, like aspirin, certain antibiotics and cancer drugs, and even caffeine might cause your tinnitus to flare up too.
How do you treat tinnitus?
Apart from reducing your use of alcohol, smoking and caffeine and other lifestyle choices, there's sound therapy. Different types of sounds can reduce the most common effects of tinnitus, such as difficulties sleeping or the feeling of stress.
You can get soothing sound therapy designed to alleviate tinnitus through apps on your phone, sound-generating machines designed for helping you sleep, or wearable sound generators. Some people think this kind of therapy changes the sensitivity in the hearing parts of the brain, and others think it works as a distraction.
Did you know?
Sound therapy was introduced in 1903, when a physician called Spaulding used a piano to match the frequency of tinnitus in his patients and simply played the frequency until it became inaudible to his patients.
How are hearing loss and tinnitus connected?
If you have hearing loss, the sounds that come from tinnitus can seem even louder. It's not uncommon to have both hearing loss and tinnitus. In fact, many people who have hearing loss experience tinnitus too - and the other way around. Still, having one doesn't mean you definitely have the other.
If you suspect you have tinnitus, make an appointment with your doctor or your hearing care professional.