Some 50 million Americans suffer from tinnitus, a persistent ringing in the ears that can cause misery and frustration. For some it is a minor annoyance that comes and goes, but for others it is consistent and can interfere with their wellbeing. Tinnitus is considered a symptom rather than a disease, and is usually related to another underlying condition. Figuring that out is often the key to successful treatment.

What Causes Tinnitus?

There is no one distinct cause of tinnitus; it can be a symptom of many different conditions. Causes vary depending on whether you are experiencing pulsatile or non-pulsatile tinnitus. Pulsatile tinnitus occurs when there is abnormal blood flow in the neck arteries or inside the ear. People suffering from pulsatile tinnitus experience the sound of their own pulse or heartbeat. It may be caused by excess fluid in the middle ear, ear infections, high blood pressure, tumors of the head and neck, or blocked arteries. This type of tinnitus is rare.

Non-pulsatile tinnitus is considerably more common. It is best described as a rhythm-free ringing in the ears (though it may also resemble a whistling, whooshing, roaring, or hissing noise). Possible causes include presbycusis (hearing loss related to aging), noise exposure, impacted earwax, otosclerosis, Meniere’s disease, TMJ, thyroid conditions, ototoxic medications, head or neck trauma, and acoustic neuromas.

Most of the time, tinnitus is subjective; that is, only the patient can hear it. But occasionally, another person – such as a doctor or spouse – can hear the ringing. This is known as objective tinnitus.

Treatment for Tinnitus

There is presently no cure for tinnitus, but treatment can make it less bothersome. Depending on the cause, there may be a quick fix – especially true for cases where earwax or medications are to blame.

For many, noise suppression therapy or the use of masking techniques to cover up the offending noise are highly successful. Running a fan, air conditioner, humidifier, or white noise machine often covers up the ringing enough so that it is barely noticeable. Some patients respond favorably to tinnitus retraining devices, which rely on patterned tones to “distract” the brain and draw attention away from the tinnitus itself.