Tinnitus symptoms

Contributed by Paul Dybala, PhD, president, Healthy Hearing
This content was last reviewed on: May 11th, 20172017-05-11 12:23:00

Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, can be frustrating. Learn about the symptoms of tinnitus, other medical conditions that can cause it and when to seek help.

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Tinnitus is hearing a ringing, buzzing, hissing or whizzing noise in the ears (when that noise is not actually present in the environment) for an extended period of time. Tinnitus can be loud, soft or any volume in between, and the sound can range from a low-pitched roar to a high-pitched squeal. 

Woman in distress holding forehead
Tinnitus can cause anxiety, stress and 
depression.

It's possible to have tinnitus in just one or both ears, and it can come and go. Tinnitus can get loud enough to interfere with concentration, and sometimes, it can mask natural sounds. Although tinnitus is most commonly experienced by adults, people of all ages may experience it at some time. 

Tinnitus is subjective

Tinnitus is a phantom sound generated in the brain and only the patient can perceive the irritating noise. When these sounds occur without any other symptoms, tinnitus may be considered a disease by itself. However, it is more commonly a symptom of another medical condition. For example, if it accompanied by hearing loss or dizziness, it is likely a symptom of an injury to the sensory organ in the inner ear or Meniere's disease

How you may feel

Having a constant ringing in your ears during the day is not pleasant, and you may also have trouble falling asleep or concentrating at work. The constant annoyance, lack of sleep and inability to live your life as you used to may even cause increased anxiety. Anxiety is especially common if tinnitus is getting in the way of work or causing other stressful situations. Many people who have tinnitus often describe a connection between tinnitus perception and stress. You may suffer from depression or thoughts of suicide in response to the persistent buzzing or ringing that feels inescapable.

Contact a mental health professional or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 right away if your tinnitus is leading to extreme feelings of depression, anxiety or suicide.

Underlying medical diagnoses 

Symptoms of tinnitus have been linked to many medical diagnoses, including:

  • Hearing loss - Damage to the sensory cells in the inner ear, especially due to aging or noise exposure can cause tinnitus as well as hearing loss.
  • Meniere's disease -This disorder is characterized by a classic trio of symptoms: tinnitus, fluctuating hearing loss and dizziness.
  • Otosclerosis - This disease may cause tinnitus as the middle ear bones stiffen and freeze.
  • Acoustic neuroma - This slow-growing, benign tumor on the auditory nerve is also accompanied by facial paralysis, headache, nausea and vomiting.
  • Atherosclerosis of the carotid artery - Putting pressure on the carotid artery can sometimes decrease the intensity of the tinnitus.
  • Severe hypertension - People with high blood pressure can also experience a throbbing headache, restlessness, nausea, vomiting, blurred vision and seizures.

Other medical issues often associated with tinnitus as a symptom include arthritis of the neck, multiple sclerosis and glomus jugulare tumor. Tinnitus may also be a side effect of ototoxic medications, head or neck trauma, poor dietary habits or impacted earwax.

Testing and diagnosing tinnitus

The tinnitus sounds you hear, when you hear them and how often you hear them may be able to help your hearing care professional or physician determine the best way to treat your tinnitus. A tinnitus evaluation will begin with a series of questions designed to get a clear description of your symptoms such as:

  • How long has this been going on? 
  • Is it regular or constant?
  • Are the symptoms worse at certain points of the day?
  • Which ear is causing the issue? Both?
  • How loud is the noise?
  • Is the pitch high or low?
  • Is the issue extremely bothersome or just a little irritating?
  • Are there certain conditions that make the symptoms worse, such as exposure to noise or caffeine intake?
  • Does the sound ever change?

After discussing your symptoms of tinnitus, your hearing care professional will conduct a physical examination of the ears and a full hearing evaluation. In addition to the basic hearing tests, a tinnitus evaluation will usually include a pitch matching test and a loudness matching test to quantify the frequency and level of the tinnitus as much as possible. This information is valuable for some tinnitus treatment techniques. If you experience tinnitus in certain physical positions, you may be asked to move your eyes around, clench and unclench your jaw, or move the neck, arms or legs during the exam. 

Get help from an expert

Not all hearing care professionals specialize in tinnitus diagnosis and treatment. Look for a hearing healthcare practitioner in your area who advertises this expertise. Before your first appointment, take note of your specific symptoms, when they occur and what environments make them better or worse. This work ahead of time will prepare you for the first questions asked by the practitioner and ensure you get the most out of your evaluation. 

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