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What is Tinnitus? (Definition, Causes, and Treatment)

July 4th, 2017 | 4 min. read

By Chuck Leider




There are many people that experience tinnitus. In the United States alone, there are over 45 million people struggling with tinnitus and this makes it among the most common health conditions in the U.S. Although anyone can develop this condition, there's a higher risk of exposure to some populations due to age, recreational activities, and occupational hazards.

Tinnitus Definition

If you're asking yourself, "what is tinnitus", think of it as ringing in your ears. You may hear

  • ringing

  • chirping

  • whistling

  • chirping

  • buzzing

  • or other sounds.

The noise can be either continuous or intermittent and can vary in how loud it is. Low background noise can make it worse. Therefore, you may become more aware of it when you're trying to go to sleep at night in a quiet room. You may notice, in rare cases, the sound beating along with your heart, which is referred to as pulsatile tinnitus.

Even though tinnitus can be annoying and bothersome, it's typically not a sign of anything serious. And despite the fact that it can worsen with age, treatment can improve tinnitus in most people. Tinnitus isn't an illness itself, but rather a symptom of another condition such as:

  • Ear infection

  • Hearing loss

  • Ear trauma

  • Earwax buildup

  • Certain medications

  • Exposure to loud noise

  • Pregnancy

  • Blood flow problems

  • Brain tumors or tumors close to the ear

  • Overactive thyroid

  • Anemia

  • Meniere's disease


There are a couple types of tinnitus. These include:


  • Subjective Tinnitus. This is the type that only you can hear and is the most common type of the condition. Outer, inner or middle ear problems can cause it. Hearing (auditory) nerve problems can cause it as well as the auditory pathways which is the area of the brain that portrays nerve signals as sound.

  • Objective Tinnitus. This type of tinnitus is the type your physician can hear during an examination. It's a rare form of tinnitus and may be caused by a middle ear bone condition, blood vessel problem or muscle contractions.


Causes of Tinnitus

Tinnitus can get worse by a number of health conditions. Typically, the exact cause isn't found, however, one of the most common causes of the condition is inner ear cell damage. This is where delicate, tiny inner ear hairs move in accordance to the pressure of sound waves. This triggers your ear cells to let go of an electrical signal through your ear's auditory nerve to your brain. Your brain portrays these signals as sound. It’s when these inner ear hairs are broken or bent that causes tinnitus because they leak random electrical impulses to your brain.

Other causes of the condition include chronic health conditions, ear problems or injuries that affect your ear nerves or your brain's hearing center. In many people, these conditions can cause tinnitus:

  • Loud Noise Exposure.  Loud noises that come from things like chainsaws, heavy equipment or firearms can lead to noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). MP3 players, iPods or other portable music devices can also cause noise-related hearing loss when you play them loud for long periods. You may get tinnitus temporarily by short-term exposure from things like loud concerts. It's the long-term exposure that causes permanent damage.

  • Hearing Loss Due to Age.  For most people, hearing gets worse as they age, typically near the age of 60. Tinnitus can come with hearing loss which is also known as presbycusis. One study found a 8.2 percent prevalence at baseline in adults between 48 and 92 years old and a 5.7 percent prevalence during a 5-year follow-up.

  • Ear Bone Changes. Otosclerosis (stiffening of your middle ear bones) may cause tinnitus and affect your hearing. This condition tends to run in families and is caused by abnormal bone growth.

  • Earwax Blockage Earwax protects the canal of your ear by slowing bacterial growth and trapping dirt. However, when you have too much earwax, it can be difficult to wash away naturally, causing irritation to your eardrum and hearing loss leading to tinnitus.

Other potential tinnitus causes include:

  • Ear infections

  • Neck and head injuries

  • Traumatic brain injury

  • Earwax or a foreign object touching the eardrum

  • Cardiovascular diseases

  • Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder

  • Eustachian (middle ear) tube problems

  • Diabetes

  • Middle ear bone stiffening

Certain medications like some antibiotics, diuretics, ibuprofen, and aspirin can be "ototoxic", damaging your inner ear and leading to tinnitus.


Tinnitus Treatment

There are some home remedies that can be beneficial tinnitus. These include quitting smoking, avoiding caffeine, decreasing the intake of salt and taking certain supplements, like Melatonin, Zinc or Ginkgo biloba. Patients with both tinnitus and hearing loss may find relief from using a hearing aid.



While medication can't cure tinnitus, there are some that may help reduce how severe your complications or symptoms are. Potential medications include:

  • Tricyclic Antidepressants including Nortriptyline and Amitriptyline. These have shown some success, but normally doctors prescribe them for severe tinnitus since they come with side effects like blurred vision, dry mouth, heart problems and constipation.

  • Alprazolam, including Xanax and Niravam. These medications can help reduce your symptoms of tinnitus, but again, they come with side effects like nausea and drowsiness. They’re also habit-forming.



Your ENT doctor in Houston may recommend surgery if you have tinnitus due to glomus tumors, Meniere's disease, sigmoid sinus diverticulum, acoustic neuromas, or arteriovenous malformations (AVMs).


Tinnitus Evaluation

It's important that you're prepared for your appointment with your ENT doctor if you think you're struggling with tinnitus. Your ear, nose and throat physician will ask about your symptoms and review your medical history. They'll likely look at other health conditions you have, such as high blood pressure, hearing loss, or clogged arteries.

You'll have to inform your physician about all medications that you're on, including herbal remedies. Your doctor may also ask you a series of questions such as when you first began experiencing symptoms, if you have it in one or both ears, what the noise sounds like and more.

Your Houston ENT doctor will take a look at your ears, as well as your neck and head to check for potential causes of tinnitus. He may conduct certain tests such as:

  • Movement. Your physician will request you to clench your jaw, move your eyes or move your arms, legs or neck. If you find your tinnitus getting worse or changing, it could be an indication of an underlying condition that requires treatment.

  • Hearing Exam. You'll be placed in a soundproof room and will have to wear earphones. There will be specific sounds that are played in each ear, one at a time. You will indicate when you hear a sound and your responses will be analyzed.

  • Imaging Tests. You may require imaging tests like MRI or CT scans, depending on what the doctor suspects is causing your tinnitus.

Patients with tinnitus typically undergo a full ear, nose and throat evaluation from us here at Houston ENT & Allergy, in addition to testing such as an audiogram.  

Houston ENT & Allergy provides evaluation and treatment for patients who suffer from tinnitus. For an appointment at Houston ENT & Allergy for a tinnitus evaluation, give us a call us at 281-649-7000 or complete our online form.


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