What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is a perception of noise or ringing in the ears when no external noise is present. Tinnitus is a symptom of an underlying medical condition that affects as many as 20 percent of the population.

Causes of tinnitus

The most common cause of tinnitus is prolonged exposure to loud noises. The excessive noise may cause permanent damage to the tiny sensory hair cells of the cochlea. 

Other causes of tinnitus include:

  • A head and neck injury
  • An ear infection 
  • Middle ear conditions
  • TMJ conditions (temporomandibular joint)
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Diabetes
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Earwax or another foreign body in the eardrum

Risk factors for tinnitus

Tinnitus is a common ear condition. Although it can affect men and women of all ages and ethnicities, it is more common in men who are older. You may have a greater chance of experiencing it if you have any of the following risk factors:

  • You are a smoker
  • You have hearing loss
  • You are exposed to excessive noise 

Symptoms of tinnitus

The most common symptom associated with tinnitus is noise in the ears that can be in the form of ringing, buzzing, hissing or whistling. 

The noise can be sporadic or continuous and is typically only heard by the sufferer.

If you experience symptoms of tinnitus that are associated with high blood pressure, an underactive thyroid, pain or drainage from the ear or are accompanied by dizziness, call your doctor right away. You may need immediate medical treatment.

Diagnosis of tinnitus

Tinnitus can be diagnosed in a physical exam with your doctor. Your care team may order any of the following tests:

  • Hearing exam — can help determine the cause of your tinnitus
  • Movement test — may help identify underlying disorders that may need medical treatment
  • Imaging tests — your doctor may order a CT or MRI scan to identify an underlying cause of tinnitus such as a structural problem

Some patients will never discover what is causing their symptoms.

Treatment of tinnitus

There is no cure for most cases of tinnitus. The goal of currently available treatment options is to reduce the severity of your symptoms to improve your quality of life.

Treatment may include treating the underlying condition, noise suppression or medications. 

Your Mercy Health doctor will treat the underlying cause of tinnitus such as:

  • Ear infections — prompt attention and treatment of ear infections can relieve symptoms of tinnitus
  • TMJ  — temporomandibular joint problems affect the joint between the cheek and jaw bones, if corrected, your symptoms of tinnitus may improve
  • Blood vessel condition — if a vascular condition is causing your symptoms, you may need surgery to correct the vascular issue, which will relieve the symptoms of tinnitus
  • Earwax buildup — removing any excess earwax buildup can reduce your symptoms of tinnitus
  • Ototoxic medications — ototoxic medications can lead to symptoms of tinnitus; if you are experiencing tinnitus symptoms, your doctor may discontinue the use of these medications

Noise suppression

Some patients find relief with electronic devices that may suppress the noise you hear. White noise machines, hearing aids, masking devices and tinnitus retraining are all options to suppress the noise.

  • White noise machines, fans, humidifiers or air conditioners can drown out internal noise while you sleep.
  • Hearing aids are most effective if you have hearing issues in combination with tinnitus.
  • Masking devices that are similar to hearing aids can produce a low-level white noise to suppress internal noise.
  • Tinnitus retraining is a type of treatment where you train yourself not to focus on the noise, you will wear a device that is programmed to cover your internal noise.


Medications may help relieve the severity of your symptoms. Medications that may be prescribed by your doctor include:

  • Tricyclic antidepressants can be used for severe tinnitus but have severe side effects
  • Alprazolam such as Xanax can relieve your symptoms cause by tinnitus but can also cause side effects and are addictive

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