Tinnitus (pronounced ti-NIGHT-us or TIN-i-tus) refers to hearing sounds in one or both ears, or in the head that is not coming from an outside sound source. It is described in various ways, including the following:
• Cricket sound
• Seashell or ocean sound
• Pulsation, like a heartbeat
• Roaring pulse
• Hissing plus a tone
Virtually everyone at one time or another experiences tinnitus. The American Tinnitus Association (ATA) www.ata.org is probably the best information resource on this topic. They report that more than 50 million Americans experience tinnitus. Tinnitus can be constant or intermittent. It can sometimes be noticeable mainly at night when it is quiet, and there are no other noises to “mask” or cover it. It can occur in one or both ears, or it can seem to be in a person’s head (not the ears). It can be very faint or incredibly loud. Often, people with tinnitus consider it a non-bothersome fact of life or only somewhat bothersome. Some other people find it annoying but can tolerate it. To a small percentage of sufferers, tinnitus can be experienced as tremendously stressful, upsetting, and even be debilitating.
If you have any of the following symptoms relating to or in addition to your tinnitus, a consultation with your audiologist and/or physician or otolaryngologist (ENT physician) is recommended. If you see a doctor first, you will likely be referred to an audiologist for a complete audiological evaluation. The audiologist will help your physician rule out possible causes of your tinnitus. If you have hearing concerns and seek an audiological consultation first, your audiologist will contribute to determining whether your tinnitus complaints and other ear symptoms warrant referral to an ENT specialist.
• Tinnitus that is bothersome and of concern to you
• Tinnitus that developed suddenly
• Tinnitus in only one ear
• Tinnitus that is different in one ear than the other (louder or different sounding)
• Difficulty hearing in addition to tinnitus
• A feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear(s) or head accompanying the tinnitus
• The presence of dizziness or imbalance in addition to tinnitus
• Tinnitus that fluctuates along with hearing fluctuation
• Tinnitus that has a pulsing sound (like hearing your heartbeat in your ear)
The exact mechanism by which tinnitus is produced is not entirely understood. Tinnitus is a symptom of whatever is causing it. It is not a disease in itself. Some causes of tinnitus can be treated immediately to improve the tinnitus. Sometimes earwax impaction or an ear infection is the culprit and when these problems are resolved, so is the tinnitus. There are many possible causes of tinnitus. It can be the result of subtle changes occurring anywhere in the auditory system or in related body systems that interact with the auditory system such as the nervous and vascular systems.
What can be done for tinnitus depends on upon the cause? If it is due to a surgically correctable hearing loss, such as otosclerosis, the tinnitus may disappear once the surgery is performed. Pulsatile tinnitus, hearing your heartbeat, may come from something as simple as fluid in the middle ear to an abnormal connection from the inner ear to the brain cavity to blood vessel abnormalities in the brain. A one sided tinnitus may represent a benign tumor of the hearing and balance nerve.
The majority of patients with tinnitus have an associated hearing loss. The hearing loss is similar to phantom limb syndrome, where a person having loss of a limb feels pain or other sensations in the absent limb.