Is Tinnitus a Sign of Hearing Loss, or a Different Condition?

audiologist evaluating hearing ability in his patient

One of the most common hearing complaints is tinnitus. It is defined as the hearing of sound where no external sound is present. And while tinnitus is associated with hearing loss, it doesn’t mean that you have hearing loss when you have tinnitus. 

Why is tinnitus linked to hearing loss?

When we hear something, it means that sound is funneled through the outer ear, the middle ear and the inner ear too. We have tiny hair cells in the inner ear, and it is those hair cells that carry the sound through the auditory pathways to the brain. 

Hearing loss may happen within any of these stages: the hair cells, the auditory nerve, the outer ear or the middle ear. 

Much like hearing loss, tinnitus can happen anywhere within the hearing process. Tinnitus can be present in the middle ear, and in this case, it is caused by fluid or Meniere’s Syndrome. In the ear canal, wax impaction can cause tinnitus. Earwax helps protect the ear from dirt and bacteria, but it becomes hard and difficult to remove when it is impacted.

Tinnitus can also be caused by damage to the hair cells within the inner ear or caused by the incorrect nerves firing in the brain. 

What are the symptoms of tinnitus?

There are several tinnitus symptoms that a person might experience:

  • Hissing
  • Humming
  • Clicking
  • Roaring
  • Buzzing
  • Ringing

These phantom noises can vary in pitch and can sit in a high pitch squeal, or a low and persistent hum. This can be in one ear or in both. The sound of tinnitus can be so loud that it begins to interfere in everyday activities, and may need masking therapies to help

It may take more effort to be able to hear external sounds. Tinnitus can also be constant or come and go. 

There are two types of tinnitus:

Objective tinnitus is where the audiologist can also hear the noise, and then they do an examination. This is the rare type of tinnitus and is often caused by a blood vessel issue, muscle contractions or middle ear bone conditions. 

Subjective tinnitus is when only the person tinnitus can hear the noise. This is the most common type. It can be caused by problems in the outer ear, middle ear or inner ear. This type of tinnitus can also be caused by problems in the hearing nerves or the part of your brain that interprets nerve signals as sound. 

What are the causes of tinnitus?

It is unfortunate that for many, the cause of tinnitus cannot be found. One of the common causes of tinnitus is inner hair cells are damaged. When these cells are damaged, they can trigger random electrical impulses to your brain, causing tinnitus. Some chronic health conditions, injuries, medication and ear problems can cause tinnitus too. 

Common causes of tinnitus

For many people, tinnitus is caused by one of the following conditions:

  • Exposure to loud noise: Loud noises from large equipment like firearms, sirens, machinery, and chainsaws are common sources of noise-related hearing loss. 
  • If you listen to music on your headphones for too long and too loud, this causes NIHL too. Tinnitus can be caused by short term exposure to loud noises, too, like attending live concerts. 
  • Ear bone changes: If the bones in your middle ear stiffen, this can impact your hearing and cause tinnitus. is caused by otosclerosis. The abnormal bone growth has been shown to run in families. 
  • Earwax blockages: When earwax accumulates, it naturally becomes hard and can then be difficult to wash away. This can cause hearing loss and irritation of the eardrum which can lead to tinnitus. Earwax protects our ear canals by trapping first and slowing the growth of bacteria. 
  • Age-related hearing loss: Hearing can often decline with age. It begins around the age of 60. Hearing loss that is related to aging can be caused by tinnitus. The medical term that is used for this is presbycusis. 

Is tinnitus a sign of hearing loss, or a different condition?

The short answer is that tinnitus can interfere with your hearing, but does not cause hearing loss. The noise that tinnitus causes can be present all the time or it may come and go. Tinnitus is usually a symptom of an underlying condition, like those mentioned above. 

If you have ringing in your ears, it is important that you have an evaluation of your tinnitus by a trained professional. Learn more from The Speech & Hearing Center today by calling us at 423-622-6900.