Tinnitus

Tinnitus is noise or ringing in the ears and is common in adults. For most people the symptoms are mild and brief.

Key points

  1. Tinnitus is noise or ringing in the ears. It can also be described as a buzzing, roaring, clicking, booming, hissing, whistling or cicada-like noise.
  2. It has been estimated that at least 15% of adults (that is 15 out of every 100 adults) will experience tinnitus during their lifetime.
  3. For most people, the symptoms of tinnitus are mild and brief. However, in approximately 1 to 2% of people, tinnitus is severe, and on-going.
  4. There is no one, specific treatment for tinnitus. Different types of treatment have been tried, and although they can be helpful for some patients, none of them will help all patients.

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is noise or ringing in the ears. It can also be described as a buzzing, roaring, clicking, booming, hissing, whistling or cicada-like noise. It can be heard as a single sound or as a mix or blend of different sounds.  Tinnitus can affect one or both ears, and can start suddenly or gradually. The sounds can be constant (occurs all the time) or occurs now and again, and comes and goes. The sounds can vary in loudness, pitch and intensity.

There are two kinds of tinnitus:

Subjective tinnitus is tinnitus only you can hear. This is the most common type of tinnitus. 
Objective tinnitus is tinnitus your doctor can hear when he or she does an examination. This type of tinnitus is rare.

Causes

In many people with tinnitus, the cause is not known. In some cases, tinnitus is caused by another condition:

  • The most common cause of tinnitus is hearing loss that occurs with ageing.
  • It can also be caused by living or working around loud noises.
  • A buildup of earwax.
  • Ear infections or eardrum rupture.
  • Some medicines, such as aspirin, may cause tinnitus, as a side-effect.
  • Drinking an excessive amount of alcohol or caffeinated drinks. 
  • Dental or other problems affecting the mouth, such as temporomandibular (TM) problems.
  • Injuries, such as whiplash or a direct blow to the ear or head.
  • Injury to the inner ear following surgery or radiation therapy to the head or neck.
  • Severe weight loss from malnutrition or excessive dieting.
  • Repeated exercise with the neck in a hyperextended position, such as when bicycle riding.
  • Blood flow problems, such as carotid atherosclerosis, high blood pressure (hypertension).
  • Nerve problems (neurologic disorders), such as multiple sclerosis or migraine headache. 

Diagnosing tinnitus

Your doctor will usually examine your ears and may perform tests such as hearing tests, blood tests, and x-rays or scans. Not everyone with tinnitus will need all these tests.

Treatment for tinnitus

There is no one, specific treatment for tinnitus. Different types of treatment have been tried, and although they can be helpful for some patients, none of them will help all patients.

  • In some cases tinnitus is easily treated if the cause is found such as removal of wax, or change of medication, if your medication is thought to be the cause.
  • Hearing aids may be helpful if you are also experiencing hearing loss. 

Lifestyle changes

For some people, certain adjustments can help to make the symptoms less troublesome, such as:

  • Reduce your exposure to loud noises.
  • Reduce alcohol or caffeine intake.
  • Quit smoking.
  • In a quiet setting, a fan, soft music or low-volume radio static may help cover up the noise from tinnitus.
  • Manage stress, since stress can make tinnitus worse. 

Complimentary treatments

  • A range of complementary treatments, such as acupuncture, aromatherapy, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, ginkgo biloba, homeopathy and reflexology have been used to try to reduce symptoms of tinnitus. However, there is no strong evidence that any of these treatments is effective.

Medications

The evidence to support the use of medications for the treatment of tinnitus is lacking. In some people, medications may be helpful in reducing the severity of symptoms of tinnitus. It does not cure tinnitus. 

Learn more

The following links provide further information on tinnitus. Be aware that websites from other countries may contain information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.

Understanding tinnitus Auckland University Tinnitus Clinic
Treatments for tinnitus
The University of Auckland Clinics 
Tinnitus Patient Info, UK
Self-help tips for tinnitus ENT Group Clinic, Auckland
Support and treatment options for tinnitus National Foundation for the Deaf NZ

Credits: Editorial team.