What is Tinnitus?

It’s estimated that 45 million Americans have some form of the condition. It is defined as the feeling of hearing a sound without an outside source being present. In a small majority, the noise can come from a physical source, such as a person’s heartbeat. In most cases, however, the sound is generated by the auditory pathway and/or brain.

What Does Tinnitus Sound Like?

People’s experience of tinnitus can vary wildly. It can differ in:

  • Tone: Most people can hear ringing, but others have reported a whistling, buzzing or crackling.
  • Frequency: The noise can be high, medium or low pitched.
  • Location: The noise might be only in one ear, on the top of the head or it may be difficult to know exactly where it is coming from.
  • Volume: It can be whisper quiet or unbearably loud, or it might vary in volume on any given day.
  • Duration: The noise may be continuous or it may come and go.
  • The number of sounds: There may be a single noise, or two or more components.

Most people experience what is called subjective tinnitus, which occurs when only the person with tinnitus can hear it. Another type is objective tinnitus, which is a sound that can be heard by both the person with tinnitus and other people. It is usually associated more with things that happen within the body, such as blood flow and muscle movement. But this type is very rare. According to the American Tinnitus Association, more than 99% of all reported tinnitus cases are subjective, which leaves less than 1% of reported cases being objective tinnitus.

Man with ringing in his ear

What Causes Tinnitus?

Research is still ongoing about the exact cause of tinnitus. But we know that different things, including hearing loss, can be associated with it. In fact, about 90 percent of cases of tinnitus come with hearing loss attached. These cases of tinnitus associated with hearing loss have been caused by internal ear damage, like normal aging or loud noise exposure. This is what is known as sensorineural hearing loss.

Less often, tinnitus is the result of a blockage or ear condition which affects the outside or mid-ear and prevents sound waves from entering the inner ear. This is called conductive hearing loss.

Ear-related conditions that are linked to tinnitus include:

  • Impacted earwax
  • A perforated eardrum
  • Ear infections
  • Otosclerosis
  • Ménière’s disease

Occasionally tinnitus is the result of complications from injuries or diseases beyond the ear, such as:

  • Injuries to the head or neck
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes

Some medications can also lead to hearing loss. And for a few patients, it’s not clear where the tinnitus is coming from!

How Does Tinnitus Affect the People Who Have It?

A longitudinal health study on American population called “The National Health and Nutritional Exams Survey” is conducted every year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The latest available study results from the 2011-2012 survey included several questions about tinnitus in order to gauge the full extent of tinnitus nationwide.

The study painted a detailed picture of the prevalence and effects of tinnitus in the US. 15% of respondents had some form of tinnitus. 67% have had symptoms over a year. 26% reported chronic and persistent symptoms and 30% saw tinnitus as a “moderate” to “very big” issue which affects their everyday life.

What Groups Are at Risk for Tinnitus?

Although tinnitus can affect anyone at any time, there are certain groups that will be more susceptible. Below are some of the groups at a greater risk for tinnitus.

Woman wearing ear protection to drown out background noises at work

People Employed in Loud Workplace Environments

Hearing loss caused by noise has been one of the most common occupational health issues in the United States for almost 30 years. Farm workers, mining workers, construction workers, manufacturers and those in the transport face a high risk because of the noise in their working environments.  According to some figures, since 2004 over 125,000 workers have suffered permanent hearing loss due to their working environment.

Grandmother and granddaughter smiling at each other

Senior Citizens

As mentioned before, hearing loss is heavily associated with tinnitus, and those over the age of 60 are more susceptible to hearing loss. That’s why seniors are likely to develop tinnitus.  About 30% of older adults are experiencing tinnitus on a regular basis.

Veteran mom hugging her child

Active Military Personnel and Veterans

For military personnel, tinnitus is a tremendous problem. The risk of noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus in those on active duty is high due to the exposure to firearms, explosive devices and loud equipment. It can take a lifetime to have consequences for the operating noise exposure. Tinnitus is the leading service-related injury among U.S. veterans. In 2012, 9.7 percent of all veterans were eligible to receive disability payments for tinnitus.