Tinnitus is the sensation of hearing sounds, such as a ringing or buzzing, that are not really there. The noise can vary in pitch and may be present in either one or both ears. Some experience these sounds all the time while others only hear them sporadically.

There are two types of tinnitus: subjective and objective. Subjective tinnitus, the most common form, can only be heard by you. This type is caused by a problem with the outer, middle or inner ear, auditory nerve or the part of the brain that interprets sounds. Objective tinnitus can be heard by the audiologist during an exam. This type of tinnitus is typically caused by a blood vessel problem.

One of the most common causes of tinnitus is damage to the hairs within the inner ear. Old age, exposure to loud noises and earwax blockage can cause the hairs that line the cochlea to become bent or broken. Every time the hairs move, they release an electrical signal which is sent via the auditory pathway to the brain, where it is then interpreted as sound. An injured hair can randomly send out signals, even though there is no sound present.

Additional causes of tinnitus include Meniere’s disease, head and neck injury, acoustic neuromas (noncancerous tumors that grow along the auditory nerve), temporomandibular joint disorders and a variety of blood vessel disorders. Medications such as specific antibiotics and cancer medications have also been shown to worsen tinnitus.

While tinnitus is itself a symptom, it can also lead to a variety of complications. Constantly hearing noises that do not exist has been shown to significantly impact a patient’s quality of life. Tinnitus can lead to fatigue, stress, sleep problems, trouble concentrating and depression.

In order to diagnose tinnitus, your doctor will review your medical history. A hearing exam will be completed in order to try to pinpoint a cause of the tinnitus. A movement test will also be completed; if your tinnitus worsens while moving your eyes, jaw, neck, arms or legs, that may be an indication of an underlying medical condition. Your doctor may also order an imaging test such as a CT scan or an MRI.

If the tinnitus is determined to be caused by an underlying condition, such as a blood vessel disorder or an obstruction of earwax, this will be treated first. Usually the tinnitus will subside once the condition is properly managed. If a medication you are taking has tinnitus listed as a side effect, your doctor may be able to change your prescription to see if the tinnitus resolves.

In some cases, the cause of tinnitus cannot be corrected. In this situation your treatment options are focused on making the tinnitus less bothersome. White noise machines use environmental sounds, such as a babbling brook, to help drown out the tinnitus. Hearing aids are a common treatment, as 90% of those with tinnitus also suffer from hearing loss. The hearing aids are able to make other sounds louder, helping to drown out the tinnitus. Masking devices are worn in the ear like hearing devices and omit a continuous low-level noise that helps make tinnitus less noticeable.

Lifestyle changes can also be used to help manage tinnitus. These may involve reducing your alcohol and caffeine consumption or using fans or low-volume music around the home to help cover up the sound of tinnitus. Counseling and support groups have been shown to help patients reduce stress and anxiety, common complications of tinnitus.