Tinnitus is a common condition in which a person experiences a ringing in the ears. There is no external source and, except in rare cases, it is undetectable to others. Tinnitus is considered a symptom rather than a disease, and can be caused by a variety of conditions.
Approximately 50 million Americans suffer from tinnitus. In addition to a ringing sensation in the ears, some report a hissing, roaring, buzzing, whooshing, humming, or whistling noise. Tinnitus ranges from an occasional nuisance to a constant distraction that interferes with daily activities.
A wide range of conditions can cause tinnitus. In some cases, the exact cause is unknown. Possibilities include hearing loss related to aging, exposure to loud noise, ear infections or excess earwax, otosclerosis (stiffening of the middle ear bones), head or neck trauma, high blood pressure, Meniere’s disease, TMJ disorders, acoustic neuromas, and irregular blood flow in the neck.
Tinnitus can be either pulsatile (characterized by a rhythmic pulse that keeps time with your heartbeat) or nonpulsatile (unaccompanied by any type of rhythm). The majority of cases are subjective in nature (the patient is the only one who can hear sound), though in certain rare instances tinnitus is deemed objective (sounds can be heard by another person).
There is at present no cure for tinnitus, but steps can be taken to manage the symptoms. The type of treatment depends on the underlying cause, and may involve anything from removing built-up earwax to switching medications.
Noise suppression therapy relies on masking techniques that help to disguise the ringing sensation. Devices such as white noise machines, air conditioners, fans, and humidifiers can all successfully block out the distracting background noise.