UT Health Physicians

Information on Tinnitus

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is the medical term for the perception of a noise in one or both ears or in the head when no external sound is present. It can take the form of many different sounds but it is often referred to as ringing in the ears. Some people hear hissing, roaring, whistling, chirping or clicking. Tinnitus can be intermittent or constant. Its perceived volume can range from very soft to painfully loud making it difficult to concentrate and sleep.

What causes tinnitus?

We have made tremendous advances through research. Based on what is known about the auditory (hearing) system, sound is detected by the ear and processed by the brain. On the other hand, the exact physiological cause or causes of tinnitus are not known. There are several likely sources, all of which are known to trigger or worsen tinnitus.

  • Exposure to loud noises can damage and even destroy hair cells, called cilia, in the inner ear. Once damaged, these hair cells cannot be renewed or replaced.
  • Physical trauma to the head and neck can induce tinnitus. Other symptoms include headaches, vertigo and memory loss.
  • Certain disorders, such as hyporthyroidism, hyperthyroidism, Lyme disease, fibromyalgia and thoracic outlet syndrome, can have tinnitus as a symptom. When tinnitus is a symptom of another disorder, treating the disorder can help alleviate the tinnitus.
  • Certain types of tumors
  • Wax build-up
  • Jaw misalignment
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Some medications are ototoxic which means the medications are toxic to the ear. Other medications will produce tinnitus as a side effect without damaging the inner ear. Side effects can depend on the dosage of the medication and can be temporary or permanent. Before taking any medication, make sure that your prescribing physician is aware of your tinnitus and discuss alternative medications that may be available. Drugwatch.com and the Physicians Desktop Reference are resources that provide information on drug interactions.
  • Pulsatile tinnitus is a rare type of tinnitus that sounds like a rhythmic pulsing in the ear, typically in time with one's heartbeat. This kind of tinnitus can be caused by abnormal blood flow in arteries or veins close to the inner ear, brain tumors or irregularities in brain structure.

Is there a cure for tinnitus?

There is no cure for tinnitus. In some cases, tinnitus can be managed by treating the underlying cause or by altering reactions to it. Treatment outcomes vary depending on the specific cause of tinnitus, how long a patient has had tinnitus and other competing health factors. Consult with your physician to learn of possible ways to manage your tinnitus.

Source: American Tinnitus Association