University of Iowa Health Science Relations and
Richard Tyler, MS, BSC, PhD
Professor of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery/Speech Pathology & Audiology
First Published: 2000
Last Revised: November 2004
Peer Review Status: Internally Peer Reviewed
Almost everyone has experienced ringing in the ears. But for many people, ringing and roaring noises constantly disrupt their daily lives, says Richard Tyler, professor of otolaryngology--head and neck surgery at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.
People suffering from this annoying condition, called tinnitus, hear intermittent or constant sounds that have no apparent source, Tyler says. Tyler also is an audiologist at UI Hospitals and Clinics and provides a weekly tinnitus clinic.
"In extreme cases, patients have difficulty sleeping, are anxious or depressed, and have trouble hearing and concentrating," Tyler says. "But many people with this condition are able to habituate to it fairly well."
Any condition that produces hearing loss can cause tinnitus, Tyler says, but the most frequent cause is exposure to noise. Tinnitus can develop if a person has worked in a noisy environment over a period of years, has been exposed to an exploding firecracker or gunshot, or has had prolonged exposure to loud music.
But noise exposure isn't the only cause of tinnitus. Certain drugs, such as aspirin, can produce ear-ringing if taken in higher-than-recommended dosages. Other causes of tinnitus can be traced to a severe blow to the head, an infection or an existing disease. Hearing impairment as a result of aging or a chemical imbalance in the hearing system also can result in tinnitus, Tyler says.
Although tinnitus usually is linked with external causes such as noise exposure, it can be a symptom of an underlying illness. That illness may be treatable in some cases, he says. If you are suffering from tinnitus, Tyler suggests seeing an otolaryngologist, a physician who specializes in the treatment of diseases of the ear, nose and throat.
Although there is no known cure for tinnitus, most sufferers find counseling and the use of background sound helpful. Others find relaxation techniques beneficial. A tinnitus-sound generator, worn like a hearing aid, also works well for some people, he says. The masking device introduces sound into the ear, distracting the person's attention from the ringing, or roaring sounds of tinnitus. This helps the person block the internal noises of tinnitus. Many medications have been used to treat tinnitus, but none have been very successful.
Tyler and UI researchers currently are studying the possibility of using electrical stimulation, activity-based counseling, hearing aids, and music therapy in treating tinnitus, Tyler adds.
Tinnitus can last from a few months to a lifetime. For most people, if they have had it for a few months it is very unlikely it will go away. There is a very useful tinnitus group, the American Tinnitus Association (www.ATA.org), to provide support and education and to advance research for tinnitus, Tyler says.