Tinnitus, which means “ringing” in Latin, is a medical condition that causes sufferers to hear sounds, particularly ringing, that do not exist outside the body. Along with ringing, sufferers of tinnitus report hearing swishing, clapping, and other sounds with no external root. In most cases, the sound that a person hears originates in the inner ear or in an area of the skull near the inner ear. Approximately 36 million people suffer from tinnitus in the U.S.
The condition itself is not a stand-alone disorder, but actually a symptom of an underlying medical condition. In most cases, the underlying medical condition is non-life threatening, but in rare instances, tinnitus may be a sign of a serious brain defect or injury. At one end of the spectrum of seriousness, tinnitus can be caused by the buildup of wax in the ear or the presence of a foreign object in the ear canal. An obstruction of the ear canal of this kind will cause noises that usually go unnoticed to be perceived when sound bounces off the obstruction and back into the ear.
More serious, but still non-life threatening causes of tinnitus, include infection or disease to the sensitive nerves, muscles, and bones of the inner ear. So sensitive are the inner workings of the human ear that prolonged exposure to loud noises can cause a person to develop tinnitus for the rest of their lives. It is a common condition among heavy engine mechanics, airport employees who spend extended periods on the tarmac, firearms instructors, and even certain stage performers. At the most serious end of the medical spectrum is tinnitus caused by a brain tumor or aneurysm. Once again, these causes of tinnitus are rare, but anyone who suspects that they have tinnitus should consult with a physician before writing off the ringing that they hear as a nothing to be worried about.
Age is also influenced in the development of tinnitus. As we grow older, it becomes even more important to protect our inner ears from loud noise exposure.
Most people experienced tinnitus in some form or another, but it is often a temporary reaction to a sudden loud noise or even a surprise hit to the head. People who sustain concussions often report a ringing in the ears; this is a form of tinnitus.
Since tinnitus is an underlying symptom of other medical problems, a physical examination is often required to narrow down potential causes and to rule out the most serious causes of the condition. Tests conducted by doctors to diagnose tinnitus range from a simple inspection of the inner ear with a light and magnifying scope to a CT scan or MRI. A person’s medical and work history will be used by physicians to determine the best test for each individual patient. If one test can’t reveal the cause of tinnitus, the physician will often try a more involved test until the source of the tinnitus is uncovered. As already stated above, only a physician should diagnose tinnitus or attempt to diagnose the underlying medical condition that causes the symptom.