A person with tinnitus hears the sensation of a sound even in silence. Often described as ringing in the ears, the sound may resemble a buzzing, roaring, hissing, swooshing or clicking. Sometimes the phantom sound is low-pitched, high-pitched, soft or loud, and it may occur in one or both ears. It may be temporary (acute) or ongoing (chronic).

Nearly 50 million Americans - or 15 percent of the population - experience tinnitus, while 2 million people have a debilitating case of it, making it difficult to work or sleep, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

While anyone can get tinnitus, most cases are found among senior citizens; people employed in loud workplaces; musicians and music lovers; motorsports and hunting enthusiasts; and military personnel. Tinnitus is the most common disability among U.S. military veterans. Tinnitus is increasing amongst young people who expose themselves to loud sounds.

What Causes Tinnitus?

Tinnitus isn’t a disease but a reaction in the brain to changes in the ear, often caused by noise overexposure. Tinnitus usually does not signal a serious health problem, but is a symptom of unhealthiness in your hearing system. The perception of sound in the absence of an external stimulus is thought to be a miscommunication at some point along the auditory pathway. Other areas of the brain including other senses and attention and emotion centers can also be altered.

While the most common factor associated with tinnitus is noise overexposure, there are other associated factors including:

  • Hearing loss
  • Middle ear obstructions
  • Ear and sinus infections
  • TMJ disorders
  • Certain medications

Tinnitus can also be influenced by poor sleep, dietary factors and mental health.

Diagnosis of Tinnitus

If tinnitus is suspected, an otolaryngologist (also known as an ear, nose, and throat doctor, or an ENT) may order the following tests to further evaluate the auditory system:

  • Audiology/audiometry to gauge hearing loss
  • Specialized audiology testing which recreates and matches the perceived volume and pitch of tinnitus, masks the noise or discovers the volume at which external sound becomes painful
  • Imaging if necessary, including CT, MRI, or angiography 

An otolaryngologist may also make referrals to other specialties including neurology, dentistry, physical therapy and mental health professionals.

Management for Tinnitus

It is important to understand that for most cases of tinnitus, there is no medical cure or treatment currently available. But management strategies can be used in effectively reducing the negative impact tinnitus may have on your life. Our management approach includes a multidisciplinary approach including audiology, otology, and social work, to provide patients who experience bothersome tinnitus options for management.

Our comprehensive approach includes medical evaluation, audiological evaluation, and an educational approach to information sharing. Tinnitus management is usually a combination of sound therapy and mental health strategies to best address how to improve the experience of tinnitus. If you are interested in receiving tinnitus services at University of Michigan Health, you can make an appointment by contacting us at 734-936-8051.

Tinnitus Research at the University of Michigan

Kresge Hearing Research Institute, inside the Department of Otolaryngology at University of Michigan Health, is on the cutting-edge of researching mechanisms underlying tinnitus and developing novel, basic science-based treatments for patients with tinnitus through research funded by the National Institutes of Health and private foundations. Contact the Kresge Hearing Research Institute if you are interested in participating in a research study.