Understanding Tinnitus

Do you (or a loved one) experience a ringing in your ears that no one else can hear? If so, you are not alone. You have tinnitus, an audiological and neurological condition experienced by nearly 45 million Americans.

Tinnitus is the perception of sound when no actual external noise is present. While it is commonly referred to as “ringing in the ears,” tinnitus can manifest many different perceptions of sound, including buzzing, hissing, whistling, swooshing, and clicking. In some rare cases, tinnitus patients report hearing music. Tinnitus can be both an acute (temporary) condition or a chronic (ongoing) health malady.

Millions of Americans experience tinnitus, often to a debilitating degree, making it one of the most common health conditions in the country. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that nearly 15% of the general public — over 45 million Americans — experience some form of tinnitus. Roughly 20 million people struggle with burdensome chronic tinnitus, while 2 million have extreme and debilitating cases.1

Tinnitus is not a disease in-and-of-itself, but rather a symptom of an underlying health issue. While tinnitus is a symptom of a wide range of conditions, it is most frequently the result of some level of hearing loss.

In general, there are two types of tinnitus:

Subjective Tinnitus: Head or ear noises that are perceivable only to the specific patient. Subjective tinnitus is usually traceable to auditory and neurological reactions to hearing loss, but can also be caused by an array of other catalysts. More than 99% of all tinnitus reported tinnitus cases are of the subjective variety.

Objective Tinnitus: Head or ear noises that are audible to other people, as well as the patient. These sounds are usually produced by internal functions in the body’s circulatory (blood flow) and somatic (musculo-skeletal movement) systems. Objective tinnitus is very rare, representing less than 1% of total tinnitus cases.

There is currently no scientifically-validated cure for most types of tinnitus. There are, however, treatment options that can ease the perceived burden of tinnitus, allowing patients to live more comfortable, productive lives. The American Tinnitus Association is leading the charge in the ongoing search for a definitive tinnitus cure.

The word tinnitus is of Latin origin, meaning “to ring or tinkle.” Tinnitus has two different pronunciations, both of which are correct and interchangeable:

ti-NIGHT-us :: typically used by patients and laypeople
TINN-a-tus :: typically used by clinicians and researchers