What Is Tinnitus?

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
May 29, 2020

Damage to your hearing from noise can cause tinnitus — phantom sounds like ringing or buzzing coming from nowhere. The problem affects about 15 percent of adults.

When noises are so loud your ears hurt, the discomfort is a sign that you are actually getting hurt. Noise pollution does damage. It can injure parts of your ear and brain required to hear — tiny hair cells inside the ear, synapses in the brain, and the main auditory nerve.


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What is tinnitus?

One sign of damaging noise is temporary tinnitus (either tih-NITE-us or TIN-ih-tus is correct), the ringing in your ears you might hear after you leave a loud bar.

You might have forgotten an early incident that damaged your hearing (those rock concerts in high school?). Years later, as your hearing declines with age, the tinnitus emerges. You can also get tinnitus from illness.

For about 15 percent of adults, tinnitus becomes part of their lives, without any big bangs to set it off. You hear phantom sounds for no obvious reason, anything from a whistle to a buzz to a chirp — listen here for a sampler.

The key: that whistle isn’t audible to anyone else. It is coming from you, although sometimes you might have the sensation that it’s coming from elsewhere. You might hear it in one ear or both.

Most of us simply tune out the noise, but about 2 percent of the population experience tinnitus as too big a distraction to ignore. About a third of all tinnitus sufferers also have another problem, hyperacusis, an unusual sensitivity to noise. They might pass a construction site and hear a drill and be bothered by tinnitus the rest of the day.

If you have been successfully ignoring your own tinnitus, you still should get your hearing checked. Some 90 percent of people with tinnitus can use some amplification of needed sounds. Let’s say your tinnitus is a high-pitched sound, often ringing or hissing — you probably have hearing loss in those high registers, which are important for identifying consonants and understanding speech.

Also, tinnitus can be a symptom of some 200 different health disorders that you might want to rule out early.

For all of us, it’s a good idea to protect yourself from noise pollution. Stay out of deafening “Happy Hours” — it’s too loud if you need to shout to speak — and wear noise-cancelling headphones anywhere you’re likely to encounter noise.

My job is noisy. What can I do?

Bartenders, rock musicians, construction site workers, and U.S. military veterans — anyone who encounters loud noise frequently on the job — are vulnerable to tinnitus. When scientists have tested amateur rock musicians, they found both hearing loss and tinnitus in both ears after a single practice.

Should you quit? Try protecting yourself first. Wear foam ear plugs for starters, but you can also try high-tech ear plugs designed for musicians with volume controls. There are even fancier earplugs made for military use. Some are designed to allow you to hear a command while standing in the middle of machine gun fire.

On a construction site, it’s possible to wear a helmet with noise-reducing systems and use communication ear plugs that act like microphones. Under U.S. law, employers must take steps to protect your hearing. You may be entitled to money to pay for your medical care if you can show that you developed a bad case of tinnitus from a noisy job.

But why am I hearing phantom sounds?

When your hearing is damaged, your brain compensates but doesn’t always succeed. Unclear signals prompt your auditory system to turn up the volume. According to one explanation of tinnitus, your brain also begins to mistake random electrical firings as important and then assumes they’ll return — just like you might hear more anger in someone’s voice when you’re looking for it.

How can I treat tinnitus?

Start by getting your hearing checked, even if you’re not aware of a problem. Many people think they hear better than they do. It’s common to lose your hearing slowly over time.

If you have hearing loss, state-of-the art hearing aids can be programmed to mask your tinnitus.

Some people with tinnitus benefit from low loses of anti-anxiety drugs, or a steroid in the middle ear.

Especially if you have hyperacusis, you might try desensitizing yourself to noise, though you’ll need to practice daily. In tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT), you wear a device (on one or both ears) that plays extremely quiet static daily, gradually building the volume.


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May 29, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O'Dell, RN