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Tinnitus - What is it?


Tinnitus is the perception of sound in the human ear in the absence of corresponding external sound(s).

Tinnitus can be perceived in one or both ears or in the head. It is usually described as a ringing noise, but in some patients it takes the form of a high pitched whining, buzzing, hissing, humming, or whistling sound, or as ticking, clicking, roaring, "crickets" or "tree frogs" or "locusts", tunes, songs, or beeping. It has also been described as a "whooshing" sound, as of wind or waves.

Tinnitus is not itself a disease but a symptom resulting from a range of underlying causes. Tinnitus is the ability to perceive sounds which are always present within the auditory (hearing) system. This is a failure of the compensatory mechanisms that are part of its normal function. This "phantom" sound can create distress in the sufferer. Causes include ear infections, foreign objects or wax in the ear, nose allergies that prevent (or induce) fluid drain and cause wax build-up, and injury from loud noises. Tinnitus is also a side-effect of some oral medications, such as aspirin, and may also result from an abnormally low level of serotonin activity.

The sound perceived may range from a quiet background noise to one that can be heard even over loud external sounds. The term "tinnitus" usually refers to more severe cases. Heller and Bergman (1953) conducted a study of 80 tinnitus-free university students placed in an anechoic chamber and found that 93% reported hearing a buzzing, pulsing or whistling sound. Cohort studies have demonstrated that damage to hearing (among other health effects) from unnatural levels of noise exposure is very widespread in industrialized countries.

Because tinnitus is often defined as a subjective phenomenon, it is difficult to measure using objective tests, such as by comparison to noise of known frequency and intensity, as in an audiometric test. The condition is often rated clinically on a simple scale from "slight" to "catastrophic" according to the practical difficulties it imposes, such as interference with sleep, quiet activities, or normal daily activities. For research purposes, the more elaborate Tinnitus Handicap Inventory is often used.


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