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What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is the term for noises heard ‘in the ear or ears’ or ‘in the head’ when no obvious source of sound is apparent. The noises are usually described as ringing, whistling, hissing, buzzing or humming. Tinnitus is not a disease or an illness, it is a non-specific symptom, that can be brought on by a mental or physical ‘change’, not necessarily related to hearing. In a mild form, tinnitus is extremely common. Almost everyone gets the occasional ringing in the ears, either without any clear trigger or after exposure to loud sounds, be it at work or socially. About 10% of us experience tinnitus frequently and approximately 5% of the adult population in the UK experience persistent or troublesome tinnitus. 

Occasionally people have tinnitus that takes the form of recognisable musical sounds or even complete tunes rather than the more common ringing, hissing, buzzing, etc, sounds. This is referred to as auditory hallucinations. It usually occurs in older people who also have a hearing loss and quite often these people have a strong musical interest. The exact mechanism by which this form of tinnitus occurs is unknown but probably involves the auditory memory parts of the brain. Unfortunately, this form of tinnitus is sometimes initially mistaken for mental illness. However, once it has been recognised as tinnitus rather than a psychiatric condition it can be treated in the same way as other forms of tinnitus. Helping hearing loss with appropriate hearing aids is particularly important with musical imagery tinnitus.

Listen to the following audio clip in which a patient describes their tinnitus journey with the North Wales Audiology service.

How to access our service

The first step is to see your GP. In some areas across the Health Board you might be seen by a Primary Care Audiologist at your practice. Either they, or your GP will investigate if your tinnitus is caused by a temporary condition and might then refer you to the Audiology Department, or to see an ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat) Consultant.

Tinnitus questionnaire

You may have been sent a tinnitus questionnaire to complete before attending your appointment at the Audiology department. If you have not been sent this or have mislaid it, you can access and print another copy here.