Tinnitus is a ringing, swishing, or other type of noise that seems to originate in the ear or head. In many cases it is not a serious problem, but rather a nuisance that eventually resolves. Rarely, however, tinnitus can represent a serious health condition.It is not a single disease, but a symptom of an underlying condition.
Common causes of tinnitus
In many people, tinnitus is caused by one of these conditions:
- Age-related hearing loss. For many people, hearing worsens with age, usually starting around age 60. Hearing loss can cause tinnitus. The medical term for this type of hearing loss is presbycusis.
- Exposure to loud noise. Loud noises, such as those from heavy equipment, chain saws and firearms, are common sources of noise-related hearing loss. Portable music devices, such as MP3 players or iPods, also can cause noise-related hearing loss if played loudly for long periods. Tinnitus caused by short-term exposure, such as attending a loud concert, usually goes away; long-term exposure to loud sound can cause permanent damage.
- Ear bone changes. Stiffening of the bones in your middle ear (otosclerosis) may affect your hearing and cause tinnitus. This condition, caused by abnormal bone growth, runs in families.
- Earwax blockage. Earwax protects your ear canal by trapping dirt and slowing the growth of bacteria. When too much earwax accumulates, it becomes too hard to wash away naturally (cerumenal impaction), causing hearing loss or irritation of the eardrum, which can lead to tinnitus.
Other causes of tinnitus
Some causes of tinnitus are less common. These include:
- Meniere’s disease. Doctors think this inner ear disorder is caused by abnormal inner ear fluid pressure or composition.
- Head injuries or neck injuries. These neurological disorders can affect the inner ear, hearing nerves or brain function linked to hearing. Head or neck injuries generally cause tinnitus in only one ear.
- Stress and depression. These conditions are commonly associated with tinnitus and seem to aggravate it.
- TMJ disorders. Problems with the temperomandibular joint, the joint on each side of your head in front of your ears, where your lower jawbone meets your skull, can cause tinnitus.
- Acoustic neuroma. This noncancerous (benign) tumor develops on the cranial nerve that runs from your brain to your inner ear and controls balance and hearing. Also called vestibular schwannoma, this condition generally causes tinnitus in only one ear.