Tinnitus

Tinnitus is a common condition, but it affects different people to varying degrees. It can be mildly annoying and intermittent for some, while for others it can seriously impact on their quality of life.

Tinnitus is the sensation of hearing a sound in the absence of any external source. This sound could be like ringing, chirping, buzzing, whooshing or humming. It could be continuous or come and go, for instance after loud noise exposure. It might seem like it is in one ear or both, in the middle of the head, or difficult to pinpoint.

About 30% of people will experience tinnitus at some point, but those who live with persistent tinnitus number around 10-15% of the population. It is more common in those who also have hearing loss or other ear problems.

What causes tinnitus?

There are many neurophysical theories on the causes of tinnitus and site of origin, although none have been definitely proven. Some experts believe that damage to hair cells in the cochlea (inner ear) can contribute to causing tinnitus.

The cochlea comprises inner and outer hair cells, which help us hear and transmit sounds to the brain for processing. Outer hair cells are more exposed and can become more easily damaged. If this happens, they are less able to prevent inner hair cells from spontaneously sending sound signals to the brain, even when there is no sound to be heard. When this is amplified by the hearing system, the result is a perceived ‘ringing’ sensation known as tinnitus, which is a brain activity and not the ear itself.

People experience and react to tinnitus differently. For some it has little effect, or is moderately annoying. But for others, it can become quite troublesome, causing anxiety and stress, which can further aggravate the condition.

Tinnitus can be associated with:
  • Hearing loss
  • Exposure to loud noise
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Ear infections