Tinnitus is usually caused by an underlying condition, such as age-related hearing loss, an ear injury, or a circulatory system problem. For many people, tinnitus improves with treatment for the underlying cause or with other treatments that reduce or mask noise, making tinnitus less noticeable. Just as the sound of a bell can sound a warning, ringing in your ears can be a signal to pay attention to your body. Ear damage and exposure to loud noise are common causes of tinnitus.
Lesser known causes include medications and thyroid disease. The doctor can't always identify the cause, but there are several treatments available. Musculoskeletal factors such as clenching your jaw, grinding your teeth, a previous injury, or muscle tension in the neck sometimes make tinnitus more noticeable, so your doctor may ask you to contract your muscles or move your jaw or neck in certain ways to see if the sound changes. While there is no cure for chronic tinnitus, it often becomes less noticeable and more manageable over time.
Tinnitus can occur anywhere in the auditory pathway, from the outer ear, through the middle ear and inner ear to the auditory cortex of the brain, where it is thought to be encoded (in a sense, printed). The goal is to get the hearing system used to the signs of tinnitus, making them less noticeable or less annoying. However, for many people, tinnitus appears on its own and is not accompanied by other symptoms or problems. Allergies can contribute to the development of tinnitus by causing dysfunction of the tubes that connect the ears to the throat.
Not all insurance companies cover tinnitus treatments the same way, so be sure to check your coverage. People who have high blood pressure (hypertension) are more likely to develop pulsating tinnitus than people who have normal blood pressure. Your general health can affect the severity and impact of tinnitus, so it's also a good time to take stock of your diet, physical activity, sleep, and stress level and take steps to improve them. One of the most common causes of tinnitus is damage to the hair cells in the cochlea (see Ear Pathways and Tinnitus).
Tinnitus is a common problem that may be a sign of an underlying medical condition, including hearing loss. Tinnitus retraining therapy is a promising form of tinnitus treatment that includes counseling and sound therapy to help reduce symptoms. Tinnitus, along with difficulty walking, speaking, or maintaining balance, may be a sign that you have a neurological condition. You can also reduce the impact of tinnitus by treating depression, anxiety, insomnia, and pain with medications or psychotherapy.
For about 12 million Americans, tinnitus is a constant, noisy companion that affects their daily lives. Many people worry that tinnitus is a sign that they are going deaf or that they have another serious medical problem, but it rarely is.