The term “tinnitus” comes from the Latin verb “tinnire,” to ring. Learn the basics.

Tinnitus is defined as the experience of hearing sound without an external, acoustic source. While it is commonly referred to as “ringing in the ears,” tinnitus can also be described as buzzing, hissing, whistling, swooshing, and clicking.

In almost all cases, tinnitus is caused by the brain’s reaction to a loss of hearing. This reduces the auditory or sound input to the brain. The brain doesn’t like that and will create a new sensation to take the place of what it had been expecting.
— Robert Dobie, M.D.
Credit: Mayo Clinic

Credit: Mayo Clinic

Temporary versus Chronic Tinnitus
Tinnitus can be an acute (temporary) condition or a chronic (ongoing) health concern. Brief, spontaneous tinnitus, lasting seconds to minutes, is a nearly universal sensation. Acute or temporary tinnitus, lasting minutes to hours, occurs routinely after excessive noise exposure that is sufficiently intense or prolonged to cause temporary injury to the ear. Chronic tinnitus is present more frequently, and is defined as occurring for more than three months.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that nearly 15% of the general public—over 50 million Americans—experience some form of tinnitus. Roughly 20 million people struggle with chronic tinnitus, while two million have extreme and debilitating cases.

Most patients develop tinnitus as a symptom of hearing loss, caused either by age, long-term hearing damage, or acute trauma to the auditory system. Hearing loss causes less external sound stimuli to reach the brain, and in response, the brain undergoes neuroplastic changes in how it processes different sound frequencies. Tinnitus is the product of these maladaptive neuroplastic changes.

Patients with hearing loss and tinnitus may find relief from the use of hearing aids and other sound amplification devices.

Source: American Tinnitus Association; Content is adapted from “Overview: Suffering From Tinnitus,” by Robert A. Dobie, M.D., a chapter in “Tinnitus: Theory and Management,” edited by James B. Snow, Jr., M.D. It appears with permission from Dobie, Snow, and PMPH-USA, the publisher.