While tinnitus typically begins with damage to the auditory system, it is not just a hearing problem. It is aldo the result of neurological changes within the auditory system and within the parts of the brain that influence consciousness and emotions.
No single explanation applies to all cases, but this is the most widely accepted theory about what causes tinnitus – and what it sounds like.
Everyone’s experience of tinnitus is unique. Click the play button to hear examples of some typical tinnitus sounds. Note: Please adjust your volume settings to a comfortable listening level.
The Tinnitus Cycle
Normally, everyday sounds cover up background neurological activity in the brain.
Damage to the auditory system can alter the natural balance between everyday sounds and the brain’s background noise. That’s when the brain interprets this altered activity as sound. This results in whistling or ringing sounds commonly known as tinnitus.
Neurological changes may cause the perceived sound to be more noticeable and disturbing. For some people, ringing in the ears is troubling, and so the brain treats it as important and focuses on it – thereby further increasing awareness of it. This “increased awareness” can lead to stress, resulting in further enhancement by the emotional centers of the brain, and amplification of the tinnitus. Additionally, the brain can try to compensate for the hearing loss by “turning up” the sensitivity of the hearing system. This not only amplifies the tinnitus, but also can make ordinary sounds uncomfortably loud for some people. The result can be more stress and anxiety.