Tinnitus Causes, Diagnoses and Treatments

Tinnitus is often described as ringing in the ears, but each individual’s experience with tinnitus is different. Some hear crickets chirping, some hear ringing, buzzing or whooshing, and others hear white noise or clicking.

The common denominator for most people who experience tinnitus is that it is the perception of sound when no external sound source is present. It can vary from soft to loud and from low to high pitched.

According to the American Tinnitus Association (ATA), tinnitus is one of the most common health conditions in the United States, affecting approximately 45 million Americans to some degree. An estimated 20 million have symptoms severe enough that they seek medical attention, and approximately 2 million cannot function “normally” on a day-to-day basis.

What Causes Tinnitus?

Tinnitus is not an illness in itself. It’s a symptom of an underlying health condition. Often, tinnitus is the first sign of damage to the hearing system. For example, sometimes people will experience temporary tinnitus after attending a loud concert without hearing protection, or being exposed to loud machinery at work. If those sounds are loud enough or last long enough though, they can cause permanent damage to the hearing system, resulting in hearing loss and tinnitus.

Age-related hearing loss also can result in tinnitus. This is common after age 60. It usually occurs in both ears and especially affects high-frequency sounds. 

Though hearing loss is often associated with tinnitus, blockages in the ear canal, such as ear wax or sinus congestion, also can cause tinnitus symptoms. Often, when the blockage or condition is resolved, the tinnitus goes away.

Other causes of tinnitus include:

  • Head and neck trauma
  • Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ)
  • Sinus pressure and barometric trauma
  • Ototoxic drugs, including certain antibiotics, cancer medications and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS)

Other medical conditions related to tinnitus include:

  • Metabolic disorders: hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, anemia
  • Autoimmune disorders: Lyme disease, fibromyalgia
  • Blood vessel disorders: High blood pressure, atherosclerosis
  • Psychiatric disorders: Depression, anxiety, stress
  • Vestibular disorders: Ménière’s disease, otosclerosis
  • Tumor-related disorders (very rare): Acoustic neuroma, vestibular schwannoma, other tumorous growths. These conditions often result in unilateral tinnitus (tinnitus in one ear only).

Who Can Diagnose and Manage Tinnitus?

If tinnitus affects your ability to live your life to the fullest, or you have had tinnitus for some time but it seems to be getting more severe, see an audiologist for a diagnostic hearing evaluation. If the audiologist determines you have hearing loss, your tinnitus may be connected to it and the audiologist may be able to offer relief in the form of tinnitus management strategies, including hearing aids and sound therapy.

If the audiologist suspects there may be an underlying medical condition causing your tinnitus, they will refer you to the appropriate medical specialist for further evaluation.

The fact is that there is no cure for tinnitus in the majority of cases, but if it’s bothersome, it can be successfully managed with the help of an audiologist who specializes in the condition.

Susan Smittkamp, Au.D., Ph.D., Tinnitus Specialist with Associated Audiologists, utilizes a multifactorial treatment plan involving ear-level sound devices, hearing aids if the patient has a hearing loss, general wellness and behavioral therapies, as appropriate.

If you experience bothersome tinnitus, schedule an appointment with an audiologist for a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation.