What causes ringing in the ears?

Tinnitus is not a rare condition, but it has the potential to disrupt your daily life. Symptoms can include ringing in the ears, but other noises like buzzing, roaring, hissing or humming are also possible.

While around 15% of people experience tinnitus, there is no cure for the condition. For some, it’s a small inconvenience that only pops up on rare occasions. Others live with constant noise in their ears, although coping mechanisms exist.

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus can appear as sound in one or both ears, seems like it’s coming from the outside or inside of the head, and come and go. The condition can be as unique as the people experiencing it.

In most cases, only the affected individual can hear the noise. This is called subjective tinnitus. Rarely, tinnitus is caused by other mechanisms in the body, such as issues with the jaw, and can be observed by an outsider. This is called objective tinnitus.

What causes ringing in the ears?

Just as there is no cure for tinnitus, there is no definitely agreed-upon cause of tinnitus.

What is clear is that the brain plays a big role in the development of tinnitus, as there is no external sound causing the perception of noise. Normally, the ear picks up a sound, which is then sent to the brain via the hearing nerves in the form of signals. The brain then interprets these signals.

There are different theories as to why the brain perceives sound when there is none. One explanation involves hearing loss: when hearing cells are damaged, the brain tries to overcompensate and becomes overly sensitive. This would explain why tinnitus is often accompanied by hearing loss.

Other potential causes are abnormal interactions between neural circuits and damage in the inner ear, which changes signaling activity.

However, tinnitus is not necessarily caused by hearing damage. Stress, depression or major life changes can also trigger or worsen tinnitus.

Types of treatment

While there is no cure for tinnitus, there are many different options to manage the condition.

Individuals with hearing loss may experience a reduction in their tinnitus when they wear hearing aids. Others feel an improvement when they make a conscious effort to reduce stress and anxiety in their lives. And some find relief when masking their tinnitus with white noise.

For some, hearing aids can help with tinnitus.

However, none of these options tackle where tinnitus starts: The brain. New research shows bimodal stimulation has the potential to help the brain help itself. This is achieved by combining sound and touch, which helps the brain recognize which sounds are internal and external. Over time, the brain makes changes and tinnitus symptoms are reduced.

How to prevent tinnitus

While the mechanism behind ringing in the ears is not completely clear, it is known that hearing loss can play a role.

Noise-induced hearing loss is a common form of hearing loss and cause of tinnitus. It occurs when the hearing cells are damaged by exposure to loud sounds. This can happen over time or when someone is exposed to very loud noises over a short period of time.

Once hearing cells are damaged, they cannot be repaired. That’s why it’s important to wear hearing protection while working in a noisy environment, attending a concert or festival, and turn down the volume when listening to music via headphones.

Read more about how to listen to music safely.