Tinnitus refers to the perception of sound in one or both ears despite the absence of any actual external sound. It is usually described as a ringing in the ear, but some people report a hissing, roaring, whooshing, buzzing, or whistling noise instead. It is either intermittent or constant, and ranges in severity from a barely perceptible nuisance to a full-fledged distraction. Tinnitus affects an estimated 50 million Americans to some degree.
It is a symptom rather than a disease and, as such, is the result of an underlying condition. There is no single cause, but a number of different sources can trigger the ringing or buzzing in the ears. These include noise exposure, trauma to the head or neck, natural aging, earwax buildup, cardiovascular disease, ototoxic medications, and certain disorders (e.g. thyroid diseases, Meniere’s disease, Lyme disease, fibromyalgia).
Occasionally, people with tinnitus can hear a rhythmic pulse that keeps time with their own heartbeat. This rare form of tinnitus is usually the result of vascular irregularities (i.e. abnormal blood flow in the inner ear). More typically, tinnitus is referred to as nonpulsatile.
There is no cure for tinnitus itself, but treatment of the underlying condition may help to bring relief. For instance, removing impacted earwax, switching to a different medication, or treating a vascular condition can all bring about a decrease in symptoms.
For other patients, noise suppression therapy works by drawing attention away from the distracting background ringing in the ears. White noise machines and masking devices are popular choices to help cover up internal noises. Fans, humidifiers, and air conditioners often work just as well. Hearing aids, especially if you are suffering from hearing loss as well, and tinnitus retraining devices are additional options.