What’s that ringing in my ears?
Many people experience tinnitus as a ringing in their ears or head but, in fact, it can take a variety of forms. It is often described as a ringing sensation, but tinnitus may also be perceived as buzzing, humming, whistling, hissing, chirping, roaring, or pulsing.
It can be constant or intermittent, and you may experience it in one ear or both. You may also hear it while you are sleeping. Tinnitus originates inside the head and the onset may be gradual or sudden.
Tinnitus is typically a subjective sound which means only the person who has it can hear it. It can be soft or loud. Tinnitus can also result from carotid bruits which can be heard by a doctor through a stethoscope. A carotid bruit is simply a systolic sound heard over the carotid artery area during auscultation.
Tinnitus and hearing loss often co-exist. An estimated 90% of people with tinnitus also experience some degree of hearing loss.
What causes tinnitus?
Some people can develop tinnitus for no obvious reason. Tinnitus is a symptom, not a disease. There are many possible causes:
- Exposure to loud sound
- Sudden impact noises
- Injuries to head or neck
- Natural aging process
- Untreated medical conditions
- Reaction to medication
Tinnitus and the brain
So what creates the perception of sound when there is none present? Sound waves travel through the ear canal to the middle and inner ear. Hair cells in the inner ear help transform the sound waves into electrical signals which travel to the brain. The brain translates these signals into meaningful information so you can interpret the sounds you hear. When hair cells are damaged, the brain doesn’t receive the accurate signals it needs.
Experts suspect that tinnitus relates to the brain trying to adapt to a loss of hair cells. The brain misinterprets the reduced signals from the ear, resulting in a perception of sound or tinnitus.
Hearing aids are helpful for many people who have tinnitus. The better you hear, the less you may notice your tinnitus. With hearing aids, your brain has other sounds to listen to, making your tinnitus less noticeable.