Tinnitus is very real, as it is a “sound” that is heard by the person experiencing it (subjective tinnitus), regardless of whether someone else can hear it (objective tinnitus). In fact, in MRI scans, magnetic imaging shows cerebral activity associated with auditory perception.
The Audiological specialty recognizes four major types of tinnitus. Some are temporary or treatable, while others are permanent or can only be managed, not cured.
Subjective Tinnitus is the most common type, accounting for 95% of cases. It can only be heard by the person affected and is usually the result of exposure to loud noise. It can appear abruptly and last around three months in some cases or 12 months or longer in others.
This type of tinnitus is strongly associated with hearing loss. When hair cells in the inner ear are damaged, the brain doesn’t receive the auditory signals that it is expecting, and creates the illusion of sound to compensate for those missing signals.
Objective Tinnitus is the only form that can actually be heard by someone else if they put their ear very close to yours, or it can be heard by a doctor using a stethoscope. It is the rarest form, and thought to be caused by involuntary muscle contractions or vascular deformity. Patients with this type often describe it as a “pulsing” sound occurring in time with their heartbeat.
This kind of tinnitus is commonly connected to cardiovascular issues, such as damaged blood vessels or a heart murmur. The root cause can usually be identified and treated successfully with surgery or other medical treatment. Pulsatile tinnitus, or hearing one’s heartbeat in the ear, can in rare cases signal a serious medical complication and should be evaluated medically right away if it occurs frequently.
Neurological tinnitus is caused by a disease that affects your nervous system, such as Meniere’s disease. Patients with this form also tend to experience dizziness, vertigo and balance issues. While doctors can treat the underlying cause to bring some relief, there is usually no cure, and so the tinnitus will likely be permanent.
Somatic tinnitus results when the sensory signals coming from various parts of your body are disrupted, causing a spasm that produces tinnitus. Somatic is from the Greek meaning “of the body”, and somatic tinnitus is defined as tinnitus which is caused, worsened, or otherwise related to your body’s own sensory system.
People with this type of tinnitus often have it in only one ear, and it can vary dramatically throughout the day. Depending on whether a root cause can be diagnosed, your ENT doctor may be able to come up with an effective treatment plan.
Is Tinnitus Real, and Does It Mean There Is Something Wrong With Me?
Tinnitus should always be thought of as a symptom and not a disease – just as arm pain could be a symptom of an underlying fracture. And since tinnitus can be a sign of certain medical complications, so it should never be dismissed, ignored or underestimated.
Although most cases of tinnitus are harmless and simply a byproduct of a damaged hearing system, you should see a hearing care professional under any of the following circumstances, if:
- you have persistent tinnitus
- your tinnitus is only heard in one ear
- your tinnitus is accompanied by dizziness and/or balance problems
- your tinnitus is affecting your day-to-day activities