What is Tinnitus?

The word tinnitus comes from the root word tinnire which means “to ring.” Tinnitus is a noise in the ears or head that is described as ringing, humming, hissing, buzzing, etc.

It is not related to an external sound and is not heard by others. It usually originates from damage to the hair cells in the inner part of the ear and is interpreted in the auditory cortex of the brain. Even if the auditory nerve is severed due to surgery, injury, or a medical condition, tinnitus is still perceived.

Prevalence of Tinnitus

Approximately 10-15% of people report having tinnitus and about 10% of them seek medical attention. A large majority of people who report tinnitus also have some degree of hearing impairment. Even a slight hearing loss can cause tinnitus.

For 90% of people with tinnitus, habituation (adapting to tinnitus so that it is easily ignored) happens naturally. For those who do not habituate, tinnitus treatment options are available. In fact, for 70% of people with tinnitus, hearing aids are an effective treatment.

Causes of Tinnitus

There are many potential causes of tinnitus. Some are related to the ear and some are not. They include:

  • Noise exposure
  • Hearing loss
  • Ear infections
  • Cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease
  • Acoustic neuroma or other skull-based tumors
  • TMJ (temporomandibular joint problems)
  • Earwax (cerumen)
  • Side effects of prescription and non-prescription drugs
  • Head injury
  • Hyper and hypothyroidism
  • Idiopathic (unknown) causes

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Jane and Deborah, Tinnitus management experts of Pacific Hearing Service

The Limbic System and Tinnitus

The limbic system is a collection of structures in the brain that are responsible for our emotions and our memories. The limbic system contributes to the activation of stress and tinnitus-related anxiety. Simply put, when you hear a sound, the hippocampus in the brain is activated and compares sounds to what it knows and retrieves memories of sounds. This in turn activates the amygdala which then determines the emotional significance of the event and the need, if any, for the release of “flight or fight” neurotransmitters.

How does this relate to tinnitus? When the hippocampus is stimulated by tinnitus it starts to compare that sound to other sound memories stored in your brain. In some people that sound triggers a negative emotional reaction in the amygdala. This may be due to fear that the sound represents something to be afraid of such as a serious medical condition. It’s important to note that most tinnitus is NOT related to a serious medical condition. But when the symptoms first appear, this may not be clear to the person experiencing it. Therefore, the “fight or flight” system is activated in the brain that in turn creates stress and an ongoing cycle of negative reactions ensues.

Tinnitus Evaluation Process

The first step in evaluating tinnitus is a diagnostic hearing evaluation to help determine whether hearing loss or some other medical condition related to the auditory system is the root of the tinnitus. We will also take a medical history and work with you to understand the impact of tinnitus on your daily life.

The Goals of Tinnitus Treatment

  • Reduced emotional reactions
  • Reduced stress
  • Reduced attention paid to the tinnitus (habituation)
  • Reduced impact of tinnitus on day-to-day activities
  • Resolution such that further help is not needed or wanted


A young woman undergoing a tinnitus evaluation at Pacific Hearing Service

Schedule Your Tinnitus Assessment

The first step toward better hearing is to schedule a tinnitus assessment with the team of experts at Pacific Hearing Service.

To schedule a convenient time, please complete this form and a member of our team will call you back shortly to confirm your appointment.

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