Most people describe tinnitus as “ringing in the ears.” The experience and perception of tinnitus is individual. So for one person, they may hear a ringing sound. For another person, they may hear white noise or a buzzing sound. Sometimes the issue can be medically treated. Other times we have to manage it in certain ways, so it doesn’t affect our life anymore.
Let’s talk about the symptoms of tinnitus. Typically, with tinnitus, you hear a ringing sound, a buzzing sound, a high-pitched noise, or some white noise. The pitch of tinnitus is also different for everyone, so each individual has a different experience. That’s why some might say they hear ringing. Others might say they hear a whooshing sound or white noise.
The most common underlying conditions that can cause tinnitus symptoms are hearing loss, either temporary or progressive and permanent, an ear injury like blowing out your eardrum or an ear infection, or a cardiovascular condition.
What is the Main Cause of Tinnitus?
The main cause of tinnitus is damage to the hearing system. Sometimes people have symptoms of tinnitus, and they go to their primary doctor who recommends they get a hearing test. But when they see an audiologist to get a hearing test, sometimes that result can come back as normal hearing. Now, what this really means is that the hearing test was in the normal range. Obviously, someone who has tinnitus symptoms of loud noise does not have normal hearing, because their hearing is different. But let’s explain this a little bit more.
Even if your hearing isn’t good overall, it can fall in the normal hearing range. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t changed from earlier in your life. So maybe 10 years ago, or one year ago, your hearing was better than it is now. And when there’s that difference in hearing, that actually can trigger the symptom of tinnitus coming from the auditory regions of the brain. Now that by itself isn’t a big deal. But often what happens is that we hear this noise and our body doesn’t know what it means. We start to think what is going on here? Could this hurt me? Is this a signal that I have a tumor in my head?
As a hearing doctor, I want to share something that I see commonly, especially in the online tinnitus communities. This is that most people are able to cope with their tinnitus—it’s in the background of their life, it’s not an issue—and then they have a period of high stress, high anxiety, depression, something intense going on in their life. That spikes the tinnitus suddenly, especially their emotional reaction to it. Then their nervous system, their body’s reaction to it can amplify, which makes the tinnitus louder still, and it creates this vicious cycle.
Another reason for your tinnitus could be auditory deprivation. That happens when you have progressive hearing loss, and your auditory brain is not being stimulated as much as it typically is, so it creates this phantom sound of tinnitus.
Other potential reasons could be loud noise exposure; certain medications that are called ototoxic, which can damage the cells in your inner ear and start a chain reaction to create tinnitus in the auditory brain; and finally, acoustic neuroma, which is a kind of growth on the auditory nerve. Tinnitus can also result from TMJ, temporomandibular joint dysfunction, and different disorders of the neck or jaw. All of those factors are possible causes.
What Is The Most Common Cause of Tinnitus?
So of course, you often don’t know what’s causing your tinnitus symptoms unless you see a doctor and get some test results. I almost always recommend having a doctor help you with your tinnitus at the beginning, so you can understand what caused it and whether it can be treated. Remember, even if there’s no medical cure, there are still things you can do.
This blog focuses on how to manage tinnitus, and there are a lot of ways you can do that. But it’s particularly important that you see a doctor if you’re experiencing tinnitus along with pain, hearing loss, or dizziness.
The two most common causes of tinnitus are loud noise exposure or progressive hearing loss. And this occurs because in our ear system, past the ear canal, past the eardrum, lies the hearing organ. This organ is how sound transfers from a sound wave into an electrical signal through our nervous system.
When the hearing organ is damaged, small cells don’t process sounds as well as they used to. Then, the auditory regions of the brain create this phantom sound. So typically you have a soft, high pitch hearing loss, and in your brain, you hear high-pitched tinnitus only when you’re in a quiet place and there are soft sounds around you. It’s a one-to-one relationship. Most often, that damage in the ear creates tinnitus.
So if you have symptoms of tinnitus, and you go to your doctor, and they tell you, “Look, you have tinnitus, but there’s nothing wrong with you. These test results all came back normal. You’re just gonna have to learn how to live with it.”
If your doctor tells you that about your tinnitus—no, that’s not true.
To learn what may help you manage your tinnitus, please download our free 10-page e-book, The Ultimate Guide to Tinnitus Relief.