I've got a high pitched ringing sound in my ears/head, what is it?

Updated: Aug 27, 2019

I frequently get asked this question and can see it is asked/googled numerous times over the internet, followed by can you cure it? Is there a cure for tinnitus?


What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is not a clear diagnosis, it is symptom. Tinnitus can be a symptom indicating further medical or healthcare assessment is needed. Your local GP is usually the second point of call to action (after a google or discussion with your mates). The GPs role is to explore what is going on and help find a diagnosis and management plan that best suits your needs.


Depending on your symptoms and what you discuss in your appointment, this could be further medical investigation, for example referral to an ear, nose and throat specialist, neurologist or cardiologist, medical resonance imaging (MRI), blood work, dietary work or referral to an audiologist, physiotherapist or dentist or a combination of assessments. In the modern age of health and wellness, seeking advice to help your situation is recommended, however do not solely rely on Dr Google or forums to obtain answers.


There is no black and white descriptor for tinnitus. A large number of cases are subjective tinnitus, meaning it is perceived in the ears or the head of the person, without the presence of any external sources. What I mean by this is, however you describe the tinnitus is correct. I've heard one person describe tinnitus as "a constant bee buzzing around in their head. Some days the bee sounds angry, and others, a more calm buzz", another person described their tinnitus as " an on/off whoosh" and likened this whooshing sound to a water in a washing machine.


My point is, tinnitus is unique and different to everyone. We may experience tinnitus at various points in our life. When we can't cope with tinnitus, or when it suddenly appears, it's recommended to discuss this with an audiologist or GP to rule out any medical issues that may have triggered it's presence.

Objective tinnitus, opposed to subjective, is a real sound that not only can be heard by the person affected, but can also be heard or identified by the examiner. Objective tinnitus tends to be either vascular (pulsatile) or muscular (myoclonus) in nature and requires medical assessment.



Is there a cure for tinnitus?

The real answer is, sort of. There is not a magic pill that exists, and if someone is trying to tell you there is I would question the validity of this cure. However, when you understand the underlying mechanisms behind why you observe or hear tinnitus, you can manage it, sometimes to the point of not hearing it.


The short explanation is this:

If you put anyone into a sound proof room and leave them there long enough (a few minutes) they will report hearing tinnitus. Researchers did this in the 1950s (paper free for download here), they did a hearing test on a number of people and those with normal hearing thresholds were asked to participate. The research was conducted to improve our understanding of normal hearing and tinnitus. They found that almost all participants reported perceiving or hearing tinnitus, despite having normal hearing.


When you are running or when you get stressed you may hear a pulse or sound in your ears, usually it disappears because you know why you are hearing it or you calm down and it disappears. As you can identify why you are hearing the tinnitus, you lessen the emotional or conscious thought towards it. You cannot 'cure' yourself of this pulse or sound, but you can stop hearing it.

Like the people with normal hearing in the sound proof room study, these sounds we are always able to hear, but are filtered out of our hearing consciousness or our auditory perception (what our brain is making sense of). Sometimes this tinnitus or sound is filtered out by background noise or when our brain is tuned into another activity or when we are listening to audio, we do not perceive it.


The brain does this all the time. The brain actively filters out sounds that it has learnt we don't want / need to hear. After a while on an aeroplane you don't hear the background noise as much, you adapt your behaviours to cope with the loud background noise. For example, when asked if you would like a drink, you lean in towards the steward, raise your voice over the background noise and ask them to repeat. They then lean in and repeat the request at a louder and closer distance with face to face communication to help you hear the information. Hence the importance of wearing headphones with an active noise cancelling feature (more important information on this topic here) and of course here (do you need to buy $499 headphones) when you are on a plane, train or bus.




I digress, my point is our behaviours may cope and adapt to what we want it too. Another example I use in the clinic is wearing shoes. When we've got our shoes on and I say, think about your feet, wriggle your toes and feel your socks and shoes, you can. I then say, if we think about our shoes on our feet all day we will notice them, much like the clothes we wear, however we can all go through our day adjusted to wearing them. It's similar to tinnitus.


What we need to understand is the underlying mechanism between our conscious awareness toward tinnitus and any physiological or anatomical damage or change to the auditory pathways. Hence the importance of proper tinnitus management.

How to access tinnitus healthcare?

The beauty of my role as a telehealth or online audiologist is we can discuss and manage your symptoms without you having to stress about coming to a clinic. That means you don't have to commute to a clinic, find parking, pay for parking or wait in a waiting room! We offer end to end online video consultations, check out how via the infographic above.


Tinnitus doesn't have to be an annoying factor in your life, it can be something you understand and manage. If you've got questions, a story or information you'd like to share, please do not hesitate to comment or book an online consultation with me.


Hears 2 ears, Kat Penno


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