When a ringing sound starts in your ear (or ears) for no apparent reason and no one else seems to hear it, it can be disconcerting. What’s wrong? Is it going to go away? What caused it? If you’re asking these sorts of questions, you’re not alone. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control estimate that nearly 50 million Americans experience some sort of head noise to some degree at least occasionally. 1 Of the 50 million sufferers of tinnitus, nearly 16 million experience it severely enough to seek medical attention.
Tinnitus, pronounced as either tinn-ITUS or tinn-i-tus is noise that originates within the ear rather than from the outside environment. The sound itself is different for each person and is often described as a buzzing, ringing, humming or hissing sound.
There are two different types of tinnitus. Subjective tinnitus is a sound only you can hear. This is the most common type of tinnitus. Objective tinnitus, on the other hand, is ear noise that is loud enough to be audible to other people. These sounds can be recorded using a sensitive microphone, but there have been cases where the sounds are loud enough that the tinnitus could be heard just standing close to the ear of the person whose ear is producing it. It is theorized that objective tinnitus is produced by the outer hair cells of the cochlea in the inner ear. In rare cases, vascular or neurological disorders can cause objective tinnitus as well.
Tinnitus can be described in many different ways. Tonal tinnitus produces a continuous, usually high-pitched sound, as if a single note on the piano continues to play without stopping. Pulsatile tinnitus is generally heard in an “on-off” pattern that often follows the heartbeat. Less commonly is a type of tinnitus that is described as a beeping sound that seems reminiscent of Morse code. Still others describe their tinnitus as having a musical quality. Imagine hearing the same music notes over and over again. It might be okay if it sounded like your favorite band or a rendition of La Boheme by Pavarotti, but generally, tinnitus with a musical quality is random and indistinguishable, which can itself be irritating. However it is experienced, tinnitus is aggravating for most sufferers. If you have ringing in the ears, schedule an appointment with your hearing healthcare provider to learn what you might be able to do to alleviate or reduce the annoying sounds of tinnitus.
1 Data from the 1999-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).