Understanding Tinnitus & Sound Sensitivities

What is tinnitus?

“The conscious experience of a sound that originates in the head of its owner”
- Committee on Hearing, Bioacoustics and Biomechanics, 1982

“Tinnitus (From the Latin word tinnitus meaning ringing) is the perception of sound within the human ear in the absence of corresponding external sound”
- from Wikipedia

“Tinnitus is the medical term for the perception of sound in one or both ears or in the head when no external sound is present”
- American Tinnitus Association


Tinnitus is usually described as a ringing noise, but in some patients it takes the form of a high pitched whining, buzzing, hissing, screaming, 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 can be intermittent or it can be continuous. Tinnitus is often referred to as a "phantom" sound. When tinnitus is continuous it often creates great distress in the sufferer.

Tinnitus is not a disease but a symptom. It can be caused by ear infections, foreign objects or wax in the ear, or, excessive exposure to loud sounds. Tinnitus is also a side-effect of many medications such as aspirin or some antibiotics. In many cases, however, no underlying physical cause can be identified.

Even though there is no correlation between tinnitus and hearing loss, many people with tinnitus have hearing loss. They often identify their tinnitus pitch in the pitch range of their hearing loss.

Heller and Bergman (1953) conducted a study of 80 tinnitus-free university students placed in an anechoic (soundproof) chamber and found that 93% reported hearing a buzzing, pulsing or whistling sound.

Because tinnitus is often defined as a subjective phenomenon, it is difficult to measure tinnitus using objective tests. However, comparing tinnitus to a sound generated by an audiometer allows the examiner a method of identifying the pitch and intensity of the tinnitus. Severity of the tinnitus is often rated clinically on a simple scale from "slight" to "catastrophic" or by filling out a tinnitus handicap questionnaire. Subjectively, the degree of severity of tinnitus can also be linked to the practical difficulties it imposes on the way of life, such as interference with sleep, quiet activities, work and social interaction.

Therefore, tinnitus is a perception of hearing an auditory event in the ear/s, head or proximity of the head in the absence of a real external source of sound.

Two forms of tinnitus are identified:

  • Subjective tinnitus which is only “heard” by the individual
  • Objective tinnitus which can also be heard by another person. Those sounds are referred to as somatosounds and are sounds generated by structures in and adjacent to the ear. Somatosounds are sounds generated by non-auditory structures.

Tinnitus is Common

Tinnitus is a very common problem, which according to different studies affects 10-17% of the general population (in the US it translates to over 44 million Americans). This is even more prevalent in the elderly over 65 years of age (30% reported tinnitus). For about 5% of the general population, prolonged spontaneous tinnitus (about 13 million Americans) is moderately or significantly annoying, causing them to seek help; 1 out of 100 adults reports tinnitus as a debilitating problem (about 2.6 million Americans).

About 40% of tinnitus patients have some degree of hyperacusis, a sensitivity to sound. About 10% of tinnitus patients are more bothered by their hyperacusis than tinnitus. There is no epidemiological data about the prevalence of hyperacusis in the general population.

What causes tinnitus?

In many patients, it is difficult to determine the cause of the tinnitus. Some of the underlying medical conditions which have been reported to cause tinnitus are Meniere’s disease, diabetes, hypertension, TMJ, vascular, drug induced, ear disease, tumors, cardiovascular disease, hearing loss and post surgical.

Some of the non-medical underlying conditions reported are noise induced, head trauma, barotraumas, stress induced, whiplash and substance induced such as alcohol, nicotine or food.