Tinnitus sounds like a lot of things to a lot of people. In fact, if you were to ask a room full of tinnitus patients to describe their symptoms, you would walk away with a myriad of colorful answers.
But while each patient’s experience is unique, they all have one thing in common: They want the noise to stop.
Yes, whether it’s a ring, buzz, hiss or whoosh, tinnitus leaves all patients asking the same question:
“Will my tinnitus ever go away?”
Before we tackle that specific question, let’s take a closer look at some of the basics of the condition.
What is Tinnitus?
Basically, tinnitus is sound in your head — sound that doesn’t have an external source. While many people describe it as a ringing sound, others experience it as whistling, buzzing, chirping, hissing, humming, roaring, a heartbeat or even shrieking. It can be loud or soft, occasional or constant, a mild annoyance or a debilitating chronic condition.
Almost everybody has experienced temporary tinnitus to some degree — maybe a subtle ringing after a loud rock concert, or a muffled fullness after a noisy football game. But for 50 million Americans, tinnitus is an ongoing, daily reality that affects their quality of life.
Are There Different Types of Tinnitus?
There are actually two kinds of tinnitus:
- Subjective tinnitus is the most common form, where only you can hear the noise. Most people with subjective tinnitus also experience some degree of hearing loss. It has a variety of causes that we’ll look into below.
- Objective tinnitus is a very rare form of tinnitus that other people can hear, as well. It may be caused by a blood vessel problem, muscle contractions or even a bone condition in your middle ear.
What Causes Tinnitus?
One of the things that makes tinnitus so challenging to treat is that it’s often a symptom of something else going on in your body — and that “something else” could be any number of things, including:
- Damage from loud noises: Deep inside your ears there are little, tiny hair cells called cilia. When normal sound waves enter your ear, those sensitive hair cells bend and move — kind of like a needle on a record player. Those movements send the sensation of sound to your brain. But when very loud sounds enter the ear, the cilia can bend, warp or break. Once damaged, they can’t grow back, and they can no longer carry sound sensations to your brain correctly. The result? Tinnitus, or even permanent hearing loss.
TINNITUS TIP: Loud noises can be particularly painful for tinnitus patients. Going somewhere you’ll know will be noisy? Grab some drug-store earplugs on your way. While you’re at it, consider getting a set to keep at work, at home and in your glove compartment.
- Wax buildup: Earwax can build up in the ear canal, making it hard for you to hear. This can send your ears and brain into overdrive, creating stimulation in the form of noises that aren’t actually there.
- Stress: Physical or emotional stress has been shown to kick-start tinnitus. In some cases, it can even make existing tinnitus worse.
- Certain disorders: Some medical conditions can cause tinnitus. These include hyper- and hypothyroidism, Ménière’s disease, Lyme disease, fibromyalgia and thoracic outlet syndrome.
- Reactions to medications: Some medications are known to cause or worsen tinnitus, especially at high doses, and the effects may be temporary or permanent depending on the patient. These medications may include:
- Aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs including ibuprofen (Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn)
- Certain antibiotics including ciprofloxacin (Cipro), doxycycline (Vibramycin, others), gentamicin (Garamycin), erythromycin (Ery-Tab, others), tetracycline (Sumycin), tobramycin (Nebcin) and vancomycin (Vancocin)
Antimalarial drugs such as chloroquine and quinine
- Certain anticonvulsants including carbamazepine (Tegretol, others) and valproic acid (Depakote, others)
- Certain cancer drugs including cisplatin (Platinol) and vincristine (Oncovin, Vincasar)
Loop diuretics when given intravenously in high doses, including bumetanide (Bumex), furosemide (Lasix) and torsemide (Demadex)
- Tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline (Elavil, others), clomipramine (Anafranil) and imipramine (Tofranil)
TINNITUS TIP: If you have tinnitus, remind your doctor when they prescribe you a new medication. They’ll want to avoid certain drugs that could make your conditions worse, and they may have suggestions for alternative treatments.
Does Tinnitus Have a Cure?
Unfortunately, there is no one cure-all for tinnitus, and no certain timeline for its progression. In some patients, tinnitus will go away on its own. In others, it becomes a long-term or even permanent condition.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope. You can take an active role in managing your tinnitus. While no single approach works for everyone, patients who seek out strategies that work for them may feel more in control of their condition — and even see their symptoms improve or disappear altogether.
- See your doctor. If you develop tinnitus, it’s important to tell your doctor so they can check you for any underlying causes that may point to effective treatment options. For example:
- Tinnitus that’s continuous, steady and high-pitched (the most common type) often indicates a problem in the auditory system and requires hearing tests conducted by an audiologist.
- Tooth grinding or muscle tension in the neck and jaw can make tinnitus more noticeable. If your doctor finds tight muscles are part of the problem, massage therapy may help relieve it.
- Pulsatile tinnitus (hearing your own pulse in your ears) calls for a medical evaluation, especially if the noise is frequent or constant. Your doctor may recommend an MRI or CT imaging to check for a tumor or blood vessel abnormality.
- Take care of yourself. Your overall health can affect your tinnitus, so now is the time to take steps to improve your diet, physical activity, sleep and stress levels.
- Don’t forget your mental health. Tinnitus can be hugely stressful for you and your loved ones, and stress can exacerbate your condition. Watch closely for the signs of depression, anxiety and insomnia, and talk to your doctor about treating them with medication or therapy.
- Avoid silence, and try masking. Tinnitus is often most noticeable (and aggravating) when you are in very quiet places. Try masking — creating distracting noise — by playing music or having a radio, fan, or white-noise machine on in the background. You can even purchase a masking device, worn like a hearing aid, to generate gentle, low-level sound.
- Other therapies. Some patients find relief with less conventional techniques, including:
- rTMS, a procedure that uses a magnetic field to stimulate the brain
- Tinnitus retraining therapy, a technique that attempts to normalize the tinnitus signals in the brain, making them less noticeable
- Dietary supplements like ginkgo biloba