“It’s just a broken leg—why are you letting it bother you so much?”
“It’s just influenza—why are you letting it bother you so much?”
These questions would seem ludicrous to most people. After all, highly visible conditions like major injuries or infectious diseases usually prompt sympathy and concern from our friends and family. To question or doubt someone who is suffering would seem to most people, callous and cruel.
Yet, most people with tinnitus can count on both hands the number of times they have encountered this:
“It’s just a sound – why are you letting it bother you so much?”
Yes, as an invisible illness, tinnitus is widely misunderstood. Many sufferers struggle to explain the immense physical, mental and emotional impact to the people around them. Thankfully, tinnitus-education resources are getting better at explaining the sounds of tinnitus, and developing tools to help doctors, friends and family better understand just how much the condition can impact patients’ lives.
What Is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is sound you hear that doesn’t have an external source. Some 50 million Americans have experienced tinnitus, and of those, 2 million have severe, debilitating symptoms. It can be a loud noise or soft, occasional or constant, a mild annoyance or an incapacitating chronic condition. Most people describe tinnitus as a ringing sound, but patients can experience it in many different ways including whistling, buzzing, chirping, hissing, humming, roaring or even a heartbeat. Unfortunately, since only the patient experiencing tinnitus can hear the sound, it can be very difficult to describe the quality of the sound to others from tone, to pitch to volume and more. But scientists, doctors and audiologists have worked to better categorize tinnitus sounds to help patients explain their condition, helping them get both the care and support they need.
What Are The Types of Tinnitus Sounds?
In general, there are three ways to describe a patient’s perception of their personal tinnitus sound:
- Musical Tinnitus: also known as Musical Ear Syndrome or musical hallucinations, this is when the patient perceives music or singing. Sometimes it is the same song on a constant loop. Musical hallucinations (MH) are often mistaken for real music until it becomes clear that no music is being played. The majority of individuals with MH do not have a psychiatric disorder, although MH is common in individuals who have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), a condition where patients experience repetitive, intrusive and distressing thoughts, and then feel strong urges to repeatedly perform actions such as hand washing to alleviate the thoughts. MH is also more common in people who have epilepsy or Alzheimer’s disease. Musical tinnitus is very rare.
- Pulsatile Tinnitus: pulsatile tinnitus sounds like pulsing sounds, often in time with a patient’s own heartbeat. Pulsatile tinnitus is a type of “objective tinnitus.” That means that other people, not just the patient, can hear the sounds. This is usually a doctor using a sensitive microphone or stethoscope. Pulsatile tinnitus is often a symptom of vascular abnormalities, meaning it’s related to your arteries, veins and blood flow, and it can be treated. Rarely, pulsatile tinnitus can be a symptom of a serious condition like a brain aneurysm, so patients should see their doctor soon after symptoms develop.
- Tonal Tinnitus: this is when the sounds of tinnitus are near-continuous and sometimes overlapping with well-defined pitches. While tonal tinnitus is often described as “ringing in the ears,” it can actually sound like a lot of different things: ringing, hissing, static, crickets, screeching, whooshing, roaring, ocean waves, buzzing, dial tones or even screaming. The perceived volume of the tinnitus varies with symptoms often seeming loudest at night or during times of stress. Tonal tinnitus is referred to as “subjective” as it can only be heard by the patient. Tonal, subjective tinnitus is the most common form of tinnitus, accounting for 95 percent of cases. It is also found in over 80 percent of hearing loss patients. Subjective tinnitus can be a symptom of many health conditions, including almost every known ear disorder. It can also be brought on by over-exposure to loud noises that damage the hair cells of the inner ear, chronic ear infections, side effects to medications, and other causes. Like pain, subjective tinnitus is subjective. That means two patients can experience tinnitus in completely different ways even if the perceived volume and pitch levels are the same. For example, one patient can experience their tinnitus as background noise that’s easily ignored, while another can experience that same tinnitus as highly distracting, distressing and debilitating. That means the severity of subjective tinnitus isn’t determined by the strength of the symptoms, but by how strongly patients react to the condition. That said, many subjective tinnitus sufferers share common experiences including finding it difficult to sleep or concentrate, and feeling depressed or anxious about their symptoms.
How Can I Help Other People Understand What My Tinnitus Sounds Like?
Your doctor and audiologist can run a series of tests that help them determine the exact quality of the sound you are hearing. This can help them better understand your condition, possibly pinpoint a cause, and recommend tinnitus treatment options that are fine-tuned for you. Your family and friends are a different story. They most likely do not have the medical knowledge to comprehend what your tinnitus sounds like no matter how thoroughly you explain it. Fortunately, sound engineers have developed technology to mimic the sounds of tinnitus and help people understand exactly what tinnitus patients are experiencing.
Listen to a sample of tinnitus sounds. Be careful to adjust the volume on your computer, as many are very loud and jarring. Find the sound that best matches your tinnitus, and adjust the volume to reflect the tones you hear. Then, share it with your friends and family. You can do that by forwarding this story to them or bookmarking the link on your device. Ask them to listen to the corresponding video using their headphones. They’ll quickly gain an understanding of the tinnitus symptoms you hear daily.