What is tinnitus?

Updated: Feb 27, 2020
  • Author: Aaron G Benson, MD; Chief Editor: Arlen D Meyers, MD, MBA  more...
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Tinnitus is the perception of sound in the head or the ears. The term tinnitus derives from the Latin word tinnire, meaning to ring. Typically, an individual perceives the sound in the absence of outside sounds, and the perception is unrelated to any external source. Sound that only the patient hears is subjective tinnitus, while sound that others can hear as well is called objective tinnitus. Estimates of patients with tinnitus range from 10-15% of the population (30-40 million people). Of patients presenting with ear-related symptoms, 85% report experiencing tinnitus as well. Both adults and children report experiencing tinnitus. Development of tinnitus increases in incidence with age, although the rate of tinnitus in children has been reported as high as 13%.

Many people experience tinnitus after exposure to a gunshot or a loud concert with modern amplification. This type of tinnitus can be annoying, but it usually resolves in a matter of hours. Tinnitus is a symptom (not a disease) and therefore reflects an underlying abnormality. Most typically, tinnitus is associated with a sensorineural hearing loss, but tinnitus types such as pulsatile tinnitus, tinnitus with vertigo, fluctuating tinnitus, or unilateral tinnitus should be investigated thoroughly. [1]


Most of the knowledge and therapeutic options available to those who experience tinnitus have been encapsulated above. Individuals have placed advertisements in major otolaryngology, audiology, and neurology journals seeking therapeutic help. Such advertisements have yielded a great deal of interest but little substantive therapy. Unfortunately, because so little is known about the causes of tinnitus, little therapy is available to eliminate the problem. Frequently, therapy that is helpful to one person is not helpful to the next. Thus, many have adopted the philosophical outlook that tinnitus is a chronic or psychologic disease and is managed and not cured.

That philosophic approach to the problem of chronic tinnitus is apparent throughout this discussion of tinnitus. Because so few patients are cured, the emphasis should be on helping each individual cope with what is likely to be a chronic problem. As always, areas of active research are focused on developing a better understanding and therapy of tinnitus, and these are of importance for those interested in academic or investigative pursuits.

Such investigations have recently focused around the quantification of tinnitus, the medical and legal aspects of the problem, and the source of tinnitus. Many of these treatments are pioneered by a dedicated few. Most are described in a journal committed to the investigation, understanding, and treatment of tinnitus.

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