Ringing in the ear, or tinnitus, is a widespread condition that affects more than 50 million Americans. Tinnitus can also be a humming, buzzing, or other sound in your head or ears that does not have an outside source. The perception of sound comes from within your head. For most people, tinnitus is a constant sound. It is not a disease–it is a symptom.

Tinnitus is also classified as being either subjective (heard only by the patient) or objective (can be heard by an impartial observer, such as an audiologist). Subjective tinnitus is most common.

What Causes Tinnitus?

Tinnitus is categorized as being either pulsatile or non-pulsatile–meaning the tinnitus sounds are in rhythm with the sound of your pulse. This is most often caused by abnormal blood flow within the arteries of the neck or the ear. Other possible causes of pulsatile tinnitus include:

  • Fluid in the middle ear
  • Ear infections
  • High blood pressure
  • Head and neck tumors
  • Blocked arteries

Non-pulsatile tinnitus, or ringing in the ears not accompanied by any type of rhythm, is the most common. It can be caused by a variety of conditions including:

  • Presbycusis (age-related hearing loss)
  • Noise exposure
  • Impacted earwax
  • Otosclerosis (stiffening of the bones in the middle ear)
  • Meniere’s disease
  • Meniere’s disease
  • TMJ disorders
  • Ototoxic medications
  • Thyroid conditions
  • Head or neck trauma
  • Acoustic neuromas

How Is Tinnitus Treated?

There is not a cure for tinnitus, but there are actions and treatments that make it less bothersome. Effective treatment depends on underlying conditions contributing to the ringing in your ears. Sometimes, simply removing built-up earwax or changing medications can markedly decrease symptoms.

Others benefit from biofeedback or sound therapy techniques designed to cover up the ringing noise. Smartphone apps that simulate sounds in nature are gaining popularity. While the old standbys, white noise machines, fans, air conditioners and humidifiers are easy to use options.

Ear-level maskers and tinnitus retraining devices, tuned to your specific tinnitus perceptions, are fast-evolving techniques that have proven successful for many patients.

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