man holding ears

What Causes Tinnitus, or Ringing in the Ears

If you sometimes hear “phantom” noises — sounds that aren’t there, from low rumbles to ringing to high-pitched squeals — you may have tinnitus.

Technically, tinnitus is a collection of symptoms, not a disease in itself. Pronounced “TIN-ih-tuss,” not “tin-EYE-tiss” (the way “arthritis” is said), the condition can be quite serious and affect your daily life. It affects about one in five people, though severe cases are rarer. Although there is no cure, many treatments can be helpful. Luckily, many causes are preventable by using hearing protection or limiting certain activities. When dealing with tinnitus, there are some simple ways to treat or prevent symptoms.

Causes of Tinnitus and How to Treat Them

  • Noise: Exposure to loud sounds can damage your hearing, and ear ringing is often the first sign of serious hearing loss. Sudden bursts of sound, such as explosions, frequently cause hearing problems among U.S. armed forces servicemen and women. When you expect to hear noises at high volume, such as at a concert or while using a lawnmower or chainsaw, wear earplugs or other protection.
  • Ear wax: An excessive buildup of ear wax, particularly if near the ear drum, is another common cause. Wax can change the pressure in your ear and make your ear drum vibrate differently, creating actual sounds that your doctor can hear through a stethoscope (this is called “objective tinnitus”). An ear, nose, and throat doctor can diagnose this problem and remove wax safely. Never try to clean out your ears at home with cotton swabs or other objects.
  • Middle ear problems: Like ear wax, some middle ear problems actually make noise. An ear infection, bony growth around middle ear bones, or spasms of tiny muscles attached to middle ear bones can each result in tinnitus.
  • Aging: Just as our hearing worsens in general as we grow older, tinnitus can also occur. That’s because tiny hair cells in the ears play a vital role in hearing, and naturally over time you damage these hairs or lose them.
  • Tumors and lesions: Rarely, tumors in the head and neck can lead to phantom sounds. If your tinnitus sounds like a heartbeat or pulse, it could be caused a sign of a vascular (blood vessel) tumor near the inner or middle ear. An acoustic neuroma is a benign (noncancerous) tumor that pushes against your ear’s balance nerves and can cause tinnitus. Tumors located in the brain can also cause tinnitus, if they are located near the part of the brain that perceives sound, called the auditory cortex. These tumors can be caused by traumatic brain injury or they can be benign tumors known as meningiomas. If you suspect you have a tumor, talk to a specialist and get appropriate scans right away.

Do you suffer from tinnitus or suspect that it may be causing some of these symptoms? Visit the Ear, Nose, and Throat Services at UPMC website or call the UPMC Ear and Hearing Center at 412-647-2100 to schedule an appointment.