About Tinnitus

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is the name given to noises in the ears and/or head that are unrelated to any outside sound. Tinnitus is often described as a ringing in the ears. Tinnitus is a symptom, not a disease. It is related to some underlying problem such as hearing loss, whiplash or other trauma. Tinnitus is a problem in the auditory (hearing) pathway or in the central nervous system of the brain. Tinnitus affects about 15–20% of the general population in New Zealand, of these about 1% experience it to a disturbing degree.

What causes tinnitus?

Most tinnitus comes from damage to the hair cells in the inner ear. Tinnitus may also arise from a multitude of other causes, including

  • Direct trauma to the head or ear
  • Burst ear drums
  • Medical operations
  • Ear infections
  • Ear abnormalities
  • Medications
  • Neck and Jaw injuries
  • Certain foods
  • Stress and hormonal problems can exacerbate tinnitus
  • Menieres disease
  • Loud music
  • Childhood illnesses
  • Ear wax
  • Diabetes
  • Hyperacusis
  • Scuba diving

The resulting damage to nerve endings and fine hairs in the cochlear (inner ear) causes dead areas from which no signals are received by the brain. The brain compensates for this by creating noise which is perceived as tinnitus. This sound is thus generated from the brain and not the ear itself.

Objective and subjective tinnitus

Tinnitus is classified into objective and subjective tinnitus.

Subjective tinnitus is only heard by the person with the tinnitus. The sounds may be heard in one ear, both ears or inside the head. It may be a single sound that never changes. It may be a sound that fluctuates from day to day, or the affected individual may hear six to eight sounds inside their head that constantly change.

Objective tinnitus is heard not only by the person experiencing it, but can also be detected by an interested listener such as a doctor. Pulsating tinnitus, for example, takes the form of a regular pulsing sound that sometimes corresponds with the pulsing of blood in a vessel near the ear due to a problem in the blood vessel, e.g. high blood pressure.

Can tinnitus be cured?

Tinnitus is a symptom it is not a disease in itself and there is no simple one-off cure. However, there are many different ways of effectively managing and alleviating tinnitus. Listed below are the most common methods.

  • Hearing aids
  • Relaxation CDs
  • In-ear noise generators
  • Neuromonics treatment
  • Anti-anxiety drugs
  • Melatonin for sleep
  • Cognitive therapy
  • Improved diet
  • Massage