That irritating phantom ringing in the ears- what is it? More often than not, it is tinnitus- which can be described as hearing sounds that come from inside your body, rather than an outside source. Most people have experienced short term tinnitus, such as a brief ringing in the ears after a loud music concert. But persistent, bothersome tinnitus is quite prevalent too, with one in five americans reporting having continuous, or on-again off-again symptoms ranging from a low roar to a high squeal or whine. And although persistent tinnitus is often associated with age-related hearing loss, one in three people with tinnitus has no obvious problems with their hearing.

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Tinnitus often occurs alongside hearing loss, and can develop gradually over time or quite suddenly. Repeated exposure to loud noises can cause inner-ear damage which can trigger the perception of ringing, buzzing, or other noises in the ears. Excessive exposure to noise is in fact one of the most preventable causes of tinnitus, and ringing can sometimes be detected before hearing damage has occurred. In some cases, the cause of tinnitus is as simple and treatable as an earwax build-up which can cause pressure and vibrations, or a middle ear infection. In other cases, the condition is a symptom of a pre-existing condition such as otosclerosis (an inherited condition where an abnormal bone growth in the middle ear causes hearing loss) or Meniere’s disease (a disorder of the inner ear that causes vertigo and fluctuating hearing loss). Most cases of tinnitus, however, can only be attributed to hearing loss.


Tinnitus itself is a symptom rather than a disease, and it is rarely a sign of a serious underlying condition. It is characterized by the perception of ringing, buzzing, humming, grinding, hissing or whistling in one or both ears. Some people hear noises that beat in time with their pulse, which is known as pulsatile tinnitus. Most of those who experience tinnitus find that it is relatively mild and gradually improves over time.

What to do

If you regularly or continually hear sounds such as ringing, buzzing, or humming in your ears, you should visit your general practioner for a check-up. Your doctor will obtain a complete history, look for underlying causes, and perform a thorough physical examination as well as, in most cases, an ‘audiogram’ or hearing test. If necessary, you will be referred to a specialist for further tests.

What are the available treatments?

Although there is currently no single treatment or universal ‘cure’ for tinnitus, there are a variety of options for treatment that can help individuals with this condition. If the underlying cause is simple, such as an earwax build-up, the removal of this blockage may help with the tinnitus. In many cases where the underlying cause is hearing loss, people see a dramatic reduction in symptoms by being fitted with hearing devices with tinnitus programs.  Widex’s Zen program offers a four-part approach to tinnitus relief that includes the playing of soothing, harmonic tones as well as a relaxation component. Resound hearing instruments have a sound generator that can reduce the tinnitus and make it less noticeable.