What Causes Tinnitus or Ear Ringing?

Tinnitus is the ringing, buzzing, swishing, hissing, humming, whistling sounds in the ear that seems to originate in the ear or head. According to the American Tinnitus Association, an estimated 50 million people in the United States are affected by this condition. In many cases, tinnitus is not a serious problem but rather a nuisance that eventually disappears.

Tinnitus is actually not a single disease but a symptom of underlying medical conditions. In almost all cases of tinnitus, only the patient can hear the noise. The causes of tinnitus include inner cell damage, age related-hearing loss, exposure to loud noise, earwax blockage, changes in inner bones, Meniere’s disease, stress and depression, head and neck injuries, acoustic neuroma, blood vessel disorders, and intake of certain medications. Details of these causes of tinnitus are provided below.

Common Causes of Tinnitus

Inner Ear Damage

-Damage to the inner ear is a common cause of tinnitus. Inside the inner ear is a group of tiny, delicate hairs that move in relation to the pressure of sound waves. When these hairs move, they trigger ear cells to release electric signal through a nerve in the ear (auditory nerve) to the brain. The electric signal is interpreted by the brain as sound. If the tiny hairs are bent or broken, they can leak random and continuous electric signals to the brain, causing tinnitus.

Exposure to loud noise

-Exposure to loud noises for long periods can damage the ear and causes tinnitus. Sources of loud noises include heavy equipments, firearms, chain saws, industrial machines, moving vehicles, and the like. Portable music devices like iPods and MP3 players could damage the ear if played loudly for long periods.

Ear canal blockage by cerumen

-Cerumen or earwax is secreted by glands found in the inner lining of the ear canal. It traps dirt and slows bacterial growth. When earwax accumulates in the ear canal, it can block coming sound resulting to hear loss and tinnitus. The ear should be cleaned regularly to prevent the accumulation of cerumen in the ear canal.

Stiffness of ear bones

-Stiffness or lack of flexibility of the tiny bones of the middle ear can also cause hear loss and tinnitus. This condition is medically called otosclerosis and can be inherited.

Age-related hearing loss and tinnitus

-The structures of the ear degenerates as a person ages causing hearing loss and tinnitus. Hearing loss due to age is medically called presbycusis and usually starts at the age of 60.

Less Common Causes of Tinnitus

Acoustic Neuroma

Also called vestibular schwannoma is a benign (noncancerous) tumor on a cranial nerve that connects the brain to the inner ear and controls hearing and balance. This condition generally causes tinnitus in only one ear.

Injuries in the head or neck

-When the head and neck were injured due to accidents, certain nerves linked to hearing may have been damaged. Damaged to these nerves can cause tinnitus and even hearing loss. Just like acoustic neuroma, tinnitus due to head or neck injuries generally affects one ear.

Stress and depression

-Tinnitus has been observed in stressed and depressed patients.

Meniere’s disease

-This is an inner ear disorder characterized by frequent deafness, dizziness, and tinnitus. About 80-85 % of Meniere’s disease patients with tinnitus complain that the buzzing sound affects only one of their ears.

Tinnitus Caused by Blood Vessel Disorders (Pulsatile tinnitus)

-Pulsatile tinnitus is one type of tinnitus in which patients complain of hearing the sound of a pulse. It is just like they are hearing their hearts beating. Pulsatile tinnitus is generally caused by disorders in the blood vessels due to head and neck tumors, atherosclerosis, and high blood pressure.

Head and neck tumors

A pulse can be created if a tumor in the head or neck presses a blood vessel. If the ear perceives the pulse, it results to pulsatile tinnitus.


-Atherosclerosis is the buildup of cholesterol plaques in the inner linings of the blood vessel. The plaques stiffen the blood vessels and can obstruct blood flow. With the presence of cholesterol plaques, blood movement becomes more forceful and turbulent with each heart beat. The forceful movement of blood creates a pulse which the ear can hear.

High Blood Pressure

-Pulsatile tinnitus is observed in people with hypertension. Drugs that could lower blood pressure can give temporary relief to this type of tinnitus.

Tinnitus caused by certain medications

-There are medications known to cause or worsen tinnitus. The higher the dose of medication a person takes, the worse tinnitus becomes. Most of the time, tinnitus disappears when a person stops using the medications. Among the many medications that can cause tinnitus include antibiotics (e.g. tetracycline, vancomycin, chloramphenicol, erythromycin, bleomycin), cancer drugs (e.g. mechlorethamine, vincristine), diuretics (e.g. bumetanide, ,furosemide), quinine medications (malaria drugs like chloroquinone) and aspirin (when taken in high doses).


Because tinnitus has many probable causes, it would be nice to consult an ear doctor to conduct a medical diagnosis on you. Don’t perform self-diagnosis because it’s simply dangerous to your health. Don’t take any tinnitus medication without first asking your doctor. Take note that tinnitus is not a disease itself but a symptom of an underlying condition which could be tumor, injury, genetic disorder, etc.