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Tinnitus
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Tinnitus - Head noise - ringing in the ears

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Tinnitus is the name for ringing in the ears, and these head noises are very common. Tinnitus comes from the Latin word tinnire, meaning "to ring." Tinnitus isn't a disease. It's a symptom that can be caused by a number of medical conditions. Tinnitus may be the result of age-related hearing loss or ear injury, or it may be an indication of a disease of your circulatory system.

Most people find that by managing tinnitus or by treating its underlying causes their symptoms improve over time. And although the noise of tinnitus may be annoying, the condition rarely is a warning of a serious problem.

Signs and symptoms

Tinnitus involves the annoying sensation of hearing sounds in your ear when no external sound is present. Signs and symptoms may include:

  • Noise in your ear, such as ringing, buzzing, roaring, whistling or hissing

  • Hearing loss

The noise may vary in pitch from a low roar to a high squeal, and you may hear it in one or both of your ears. In some cases, the sound can be so loud it interferes with your ability to concentrate or hear properly.

Earwax buildup may worsen tinnitus. Excess wax in your ear canal can reduce your ability to hear outside noises and amplify internal noises.

Causes

Inside your inner ear, thousands of auditory cells maintain an electrical charge. Microscopic hairs form a fringe on the surface of each auditory cell. When they're healthy, these hairs move in relation to the pressure of sound waves. The movement triggers the cell to discharge electricity through the auditory nerve. Your brain interprets these signals as sound.

If the delicate hairs inside your inner ear are bent or broken, they move randomly in a constant state of irritation. Unable to hold their charge, the auditory cells "leak" random electrical impulses to your brain as noise.

Damage to auditory cells in your inner ear most commonly results from:

  • Age-related hearing loss (presbycusis). This process usually begins around age 60.

  • Trauma-related damage to your inner ear. This erosion of your hearing ability may result from excessive exposure to loud noise over a long period of time. Tractors, chain saws and weapons are common sources of noise-related hearing loss.

Other causes of tinnitus may include:

  • Long-term use of certain medications. Aspirin used in large doses and certain types of antibiotics can affect inner ear cells. Often the unwanted noise disappears when you stop using these drugs.

  • Changes in ear bones. Stiffening of the bones in your middle ear (otosclerosis) may affect your hearing.

  • Injury. Trauma to your head or neck can damage your inner ear.

Certain disorders of your system of blood vessels can cause tinnitus that originates within the ear (pulsatile tinnitus) rather than from an outside source. These may include:

  • Atherosclerosis. With age and buildup of cholesterol and other fatty deposits, major blood vessels close to your middle and inner ear lose some of their elasticity — the ability to flex or expand slightly with each heartbeat. That causes blood flow to become more forceful and sometimes more turbulent, making it easier for your ear to detect the beats.

  • High blood pressure. Hypertension and factors that increase blood pressure, such as stress, alcohol and caffeine, can make the sound more noticeable. Repositioning your head usually causes the sound to disappear.

  • Turbulent blood flow. Narrowing or kinking in a carotid artery or jugular vein can cause turbulent blood flow and head noise.

  • Malformation of capillaries. A condition called A-V malformation, which occurs in the connections between arteries and veins, can result in head noise.

  • Head and neck tumors. Tinnitus may be a symptom of a tumor in the head or neck.

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This information is provided for general medical education purposes only and is not meant to substitute for the independent medical judgment of a physician relative to diagnostic and treatment options of a specific patient's medical condition.
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