Tinnitus is not a disease but rather a symptom of another underlying problem. It is estimated that 90% of the individuals free of any ear disease or active pathology experience tinnitus from time to time. A brief occurrence of tinnitus (usually not exceeding several minutes) in one or both ears on an infrequent basis is a normal phenomenon. Tinnitus becomes a problem when it enters consciousness on a constant and prolonged basis.
Studies have demonstrated that a large number of individuals have tinnitus normally but are completely unaware of it as a factor within their lives. For many, if placed within a sound-isolating chamber and left in silence with the instruction to listen for sound, tinnitus will become present. In a normal environment, with even minimal amounts of ambient noise, these individuals are not aware of the tinnitus sound.
When pathology arises in any portion of the human auditory system, tinnitus may occur as an accompanying symptom. This usually is true as the pathology itself decreases the individual’s hearing sensitivity so that the previously unheard tinnitus becomes audible.
While most pathologies resulting in a tinnitus symptom create a tinnitus that is only heard by the tinnitus sufferer (subjective tinnitus), some tinnitus sounds with a vascular or neuromuscular origin can be faintly audible to others (objective tinnitus).
Most often tinnitus is not the symptom of any overt medical condition, but rather a sign of changes within the hearing nerve receptors as discussed in the section titled Underlying Pathophysiology. Only after potential medical pathologies have been ruled out as precursors to tinnitus should treatment of the tinnitus itself be undertaken. Often, if a medical condition is found needing attention, treatment of that condition will lead to tinnitus relief.