Tinnitus is a perception of sound often described as a ringing, buzzing or humming in the ears or head that affect millions of people. Usually accompanied by hearing loss, tinnitus has many causes including noise exposure, physical injury such as head trauma or whiplash, ear diseases, muscle spasms, circulatory changes, side effects from medication, nerve pathway irritation and central auditory system changes. Some 50 million Americans experience tinnitus, with more than 10 million seeking medical help.
For some, tinnitus symptoms are associated with depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance and interference with concentration.
Tinnitus is one of the most elusive conditions that health care professionals face. It is an auditory perception not directly produced externally.
It is commonly described as a hissing, roaring, ringing or whooshing sound in one or both ears, called tinnitus aurium, or in the head, called tinnitus cranii.
The sound ranges from high to low pitch and can be a single tone, multi-tonal, or noise-like, having no tonal quality. Tinnitus may be constant, pulsing or intermittent. It may begin suddenly or progress gradually.
If you think that you have tinnitus, consult your doctor to determine if a cause for the tinnitus can be found and subsequently treated. If medical treatment is not appropriate, ask if there is an audiologist in your area who has knowledge about tinnitus treatments.
The audiologist will assess a patient's hearing and counsel them regarding non-medical treatment options. Becoming educated about the nature of tinnitus may be extremely useful in relieving anxiety and seeking ways of coping with the condition.
It is important to keep in mind that tinnitus is a symptom, not a disease. As such, the optimal treatment strategy should be directed toward eliminating the disease, rather than simply alleviating the symptom. Also, because tinnitus may be symptomatic of a more serious disorder, it is important to try to find the medical cause before deciding on treatment.
Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.