Roughly 50 million North Americans are affected by tinnitus – but what exactly causes it? Tinnitus is the perception of sound with no external source and is a symptom rather than a condition itself, so there are several possible causes. Common causes for tinnitus include noise exposure, ototoxic medication, earwax build-up, lack of healthy ears, hearing loss, and even changes in ear bones. Tinnitus can be detrimental to daily life, and in some cases can cause insomnia, irritability, and anxiety. At the moment there is no definitive cure for tinnitus, but there are treatments available that are aimed at lessening tinnitus symptoms.

Symptoms of Tinnitus

The first step to treating tinnitus is recognizing the symptoms. Tinnitus has been described as a phantom noise in the patient’s ear – including buzzing, clicking, humming, ringing, and other types of sounds. It can be high or low pitched, focused in one or both ears, and can fluctuate in volume. Just like the symptoms, what causes tinnitus can vary from person to person.

Causes of Tinnitus

The most common cause of tinnitus is exposure to loud or excessive noise, which can damage irreplaceable hair cells in the inner ear. The damage or loss of these cells can lead to permanent hearing loss or tinnitus – but this damage is preventable through proper ear protection. People who work in loud environments, like construction workers, musicians, or military personnel, are at the most risk for this type of damage. Wearing ear protection and lowering the volume on your listening device can help prevent tinnitus caused by excessive noise.

Similar to loud or excessive noise, age can cause tinnitus through the loss of hair cells in the ear. Because we start losing our inner ear’s hair cells starting at the age of 40, age-related hearing loss commonly affects people over the age of 50. Although there isn’t a direct way to prevent this from happening, avoiding aggravators such as smoking, caffeine, alcohol, and excessive noise can lessen tinnitus symptoms.

Earwax blockage is another cause for tinnitus and can sometimes be easily cured by the safe removal of the buildup by an audiologist. But in some cases, the symptoms persist past the removal of the blockage.

Ototoxic medications, such as certain antibiotics, anticonvulsants, NSAIDs, cancer medications, diuretics, and quinine-based medications, can cause tinnitus as well. This type of medication has a toxic effect on the ear that can cause temporary or permanent tinnitus. If you notice tinnitus symptoms after taking a new medication, it’s important to tell the prescribing physician and try to find an alternative medication that isn’t ototoxic.

Besides the most common sources of tinnitus, there are a wide array of other causes. Ear bone changes, which tend to be hereditary, are caused by abnormal bone growth. Ménière’s disease is a disorder of the inner ear that commonly results in tinnitus and has treatable symptoms but no known cure. Other health conditions, such as issues involving the heart or ear bones, head or neck trauma, stress, allergies, TMJ disorders, or tumours, can cause tinnitus as well. Sometimes the cause for tinnitus isn’t obvious, so it’s important to get a consultation from a professional.

Related Effects and Treatments for Tinnitus

Aside from the direct symptoms, tinnitus can significantly affect several aspects of a patient’s life. Lack of sleep and concentration can cause stress, exhaustion, problems with memory, and an increase in anxiety and irritability. Without proper treatment, these side-effects go unchecked and can severely impact the quality of life. Preventive measures such as hearing protection and a healthy lifestyle are useful at warding off tinnitus, but there are ways of managing the symptoms as well. Sound therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, and tinnitus retraining therapy are all ways to manage the symptoms of tinnitus. By treating the symptoms, you can lessen the impact that tinnitus has on your daily life.