Your doctor will typically diagnose you with tinnitus based on your symptoms alone. But in order to treat your symptoms, your doctor will also try to identify whether your tinnitus is caused by another, underlying condition. Sometimes a cause can't be found.
To help identify the cause of your tinnitus, your doctor will likely ask you about your medical history and examine your ears, head and neck. Common tests include:
- Hearing (audiological) exam. During the test, you'll sit in a soundproof room wearing earphones that transmit specific sounds into one ear at a time. You'll indicate when you can hear the sound, and your results will be compared with results considered normal for your age. This can help rule out or identify possible causes of tinnitus.
- Movement. Your doctor may ask you to move your eyes, clench your jaw, or move your neck, arms and legs. If your tinnitus changes or worsens, it may help identify an underlying disorder that needs treatment.
- Imaging tests. Depending on the suspected cause of your tinnitus, you may need imaging tests such as CT or MRI scans.
- Lab tests. Your doctor may draw blood to check for anemia, thyroid problems, heart disease or vitamin deficiencies.
Do your best to describe for your doctor what kind of tinnitus noises you hear. The sounds you hear can help your doctor identify a possible underlying cause.
- Clicking. This type of sound suggests that muscle contractions in and around your ear might be the cause of your tinnitus.
- Pulsing, rushing or humming. These sounds usually stem from blood vessel (vascular) causes, such as high blood pressure, and you may notice them when you exercise or change positions, such as when you lie down or stand up.
- Low-pitched ringing. This type of sound may point to ear canal blockages, Meniere's disease or stiff inner ear bones (otosclerosis).
- High-pitched ringing. This is the most commonly heard tinnitus sound. Likely causes include loud noise exposure, hearing loss or medications. Acoustic neuroma can cause continuous, high-pitched ringing in one ear.
Treatment for tinnitus depends on whether your tinnitus is caused by an underlying health condition. If so, your doctor may be able to reduce your symptoms by treating the underlying cause. Examples include:
- Earwax removal. Removing an earwax blockage can decrease tinnitus symptoms.
- Treating a blood vessel condition. Underlying blood vessel conditions may require medication, surgery or another treatment to address the problem.
- Hearing aids. If your tinnitus is caused by noise-induced or age-related hearing loss, using hearing aids may help improve your symptoms.
- Changing your medication. If a medication you're taking appears to be the cause of tinnitus, your doctor may recommend stopping or reducing the drug, or switching to a different medication.
Many times, tinnitus can't be cured. But there are treatments that can help make your symptoms less noticeable. Your doctor may suggest using an electronic device to suppress the noise. Devices include:
- White noise machines. These devices, which produce a sound similar to static, or environmental sounds such as falling rain or ocean waves, are often an effective treatment for tinnitus. You may want to try a white noise machine with pillow speakers to help you sleep. Fans, humidifiers, dehumidifiers and air conditioners in the bedroom also produce white noise and may help make tinnitus less noticeable at night.
- Masking devices. Worn in the ear and similar to hearing aids, these devices produce a continuous, low-level white noise that suppresses tinnitus symptoms.
Behavioral treatment options aim to help you live with tinnitus by helping you change the way you think and feel about your symptoms. Over time, your tinnitus may bother you less. Counseling options include:
- Tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT). TRT is an individualized program that is usually administered by an audiologist or at a tinnitus treatment center. TRT combines sound masking and counseling from a trained professional. Typically, you wear a device in your ear that helps mask your tinnitus symptoms while you also receive directive counseling. Over time, TRT may help you notice tinnitus less and feel less distressed by your symptoms.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or other forms of counseling. A licensed mental health professional or psychologist can help you learn coping techniques to make tinnitus symptoms less bothersome. Counseling can also help with other problems often linked to tinnitus, including anxiety and depression. Many mental health professionals offer CBT for tinnitus in individual or group sessions, and CBT programs are also available online.
Drugs can't cure tinnitus, but in some cases they may help reduce the severity of symptoms or complications. To help relieve your symptoms, your doctor may prescribe medication to treat an underlying condition or to help treat the anxiety and depression that often accompany tinnitus.
Potential future treatments
Researchers are investigating whether magnetic or electrical stimulation of the brain can help relieve symptoms of tinnitus. Examples include transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and deep brain stimulation.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Often, tinnitus can't be treated. Some people, however, get used to it and notice it less than they did at first. For many people, certain adjustments make the symptoms less bothersome. These tips may help:
- Use hearing protection. Over time, exposure to loud sounds can damage the nerves in the ears, causing hearing loss and tinnitus. To keep your tinnitus from getting worse, take steps to protect your hearing. If you use chain saws, are a musician, work in an industry that uses loud machinery or use firearms (especially pistols or shotguns), always wear over-the-ear hearing protection.
- Turn down the volume. Listening to music at very high volume through headphones can contribute to hearing loss and tinnitus.
- Use white noise. If tinnitus is especially noticeable in quiet settings, try using a white noise machine to mask the noise from tinnitus. If you don't have a white noise machine, a fan, soft music or low-volume radio static also may help.
- Limit alcohol, caffeine and nicotine. These substances, especially when used in excess, can affect blood flow and contribute to tinnitus.
There's little evidence that alternative medicine treatments work for tinnitus. However, some alternative therapies that have been tried for tinnitus include:
- Ginkgo biloba
- Zinc supplements
Coping and support
In addition to any treatment options offered by your doctor, here are some suggestions to help you cope with tinnitus:
- Support groups. Sharing your experience with others who have tinnitus may be helpful. There are tinnitus groups that meet in person, as well as internet forums. To ensure that the information you get in the group is accurate, it's best to choose a group facilitated by a physician, audiologist or other qualified health professional.
- Education. Learning as much as you can about tinnitus and ways to alleviate symptoms can help. And just understanding tinnitus better makes it less bothersome for some people.
- Stress management. Stress can make tinnitus worse. Stress management, whether through relaxation therapy, biofeedback or exercise, may provide some relief.
Preparing for your appointment
Be prepared to tell your doctor about:
- Your signs and symptoms
- Your medical history, including any other health conditions you have, such as hearing loss, high blood pressure or clogged arteries (atherosclerosis)
- All medications you take, including herbal remedies
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, including:
- When did you begin experiencing symptoms?
- What does the noise you hear sound like?
- Do you hear it in one or both ears?
- Has the sound you hear been continuous, or does it come and go?
- How loud is the noise?
- How much does the noise bother you?
- What, if anything, seems to improve your symptoms?
- What, if anything, appears to worsen your symptoms?
- Have you been exposed to loud noises?
- Have you had an ear disease or head injury?
After you've been diagnosed with tinnitus, you may need to see an ear, nose and throat doctor (otolaryngologist). You may also need to work with a hearing expert (audiologist).