What is tinnitus?

Those experiencing tinnitus hear sounds that occur internally rather than externally, also known as phantom auditory sounds. It is often recognized as an unexplained ringing in the ears; however, many different sounds may occur such as buzzing, whistling, hissing, pulsating or clicking. 

The pitch, volume and type of sound vary from person to person and can transform over time. In the majority of cases, only the person experiencing tinnitus can hear the sounds.

How common is tinnitus?

You have likely experienced a mild form of tinnitus in the past. Temporary ringing in the ears is very common, especially after working with loud machinery or attending an event such as a concert.

According to the Canadian Hearing Society, 10% to 15% of Canadians experience tinnitus regularly, and 5% report that it is severe enough to affect their day-to-day life. 

Are there different types of tinnitus?

There are several subtypes of tinnitus, but there are two main types that are referred to most commonly.

Subjective tinnitus

Subjective tinnitus can only be heard by the person who is experiencing it. Those experiencing subjective tinnitus often hear sounds either in one or both ears or near their head, and no one else is able to hear them. This is the most common type of tinnitus.

Objective tinnitus

Objective tinnitus occurs when another person can also hear the sounds, usually when examining the ears of the person experiencing the tinnitus. This type of tinnitus is much less common and is often represented by a pulsing sound, and can be caused by physical traits like increased blood flow or muscle spasms in the ear.

What does tinnitus sound like?

Tinnitus sounds different for everyone. For some, it may be a shrill, high-pitched ring. For others, it sounds more like white noise. Some hear a humming, buzzing, pulsating or drilling sounds. Many experience multiple sounds. These sounds vary in pitch, volume and frequency.

What causes tinnitus?

Tinnitus is caused by a transformation in the signal that the ears send to the auditory cortex, which is the part of the brain that processes sound. There are multiple situations that can cause this alteration.

Loss of hearing

It’s not necessarily the loss of hearing itself that causes tinnitus. Rather, the same factors that cause hearing loss can also cause tinnitus, such as damages to the small sensory hair cells in the inner ear. This is often caused by old age or excessive exposure to loud noise. While hearing loss and tinnitus are often concurrent, many people suffering from tinnitus do not experience any hearing loss.

Some other common causes include:

  • Head, ear or neck injuries
  • Ear infections
  • Ear diseases
  • Medication side effects
  • Emotional stress

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