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What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is a phantom perception of sound. It is normal to occasionally experience a brief ringing or buzzing sound that lasts a few seconds. Research indicates that 15 percent of children have chronic tinnitus. Most are not bothered by it and in many cases, it goes away without intervention. Of children who experience it, 18 percent find that tinnitus negatively affects their daily lives and that they need assistance in dealing with it.

Tinnitus | Symptoms & Causes

What are the symptoms of tinnitus?

Tinnitus sounds can include ringing, buzzing, whooshing, thumping, buzzing, or clicking. 

What causes tinnitus?

Tinnitus happens most commonly because neurons in the brain’s auditory pathways are sending signals that are not related to an actual sound source. In rare cases, tinnitus is a physical sound produced within the body by the musculoskeletal or circulatory system. Possible causes include impacted ear wax, hearing loss, damaging noise exposure, concussion, Lyme disease, jaw and dental issues, and medications. Most cases of tinnitus in children do not have an obvious medical cause and are nothing to worry about. Tinnitus increases when a person is anxious about it or when a person stressed for other reasons.

Tinnitus | Diagnosis & Treatments

How do we diagnose tinnitus?

Tinnitus is diagnosed based on a patient’s report of symptoms.

How do we treat tinnitus?

At Boston Children’s Hospital, a child with tinnitus will be seen first by an audiologist, who will create a thorough record of tinnitus characteristics, tinnitus history, distress caused by the tinnitus, and any related health factors. Next, they will perform a comprehensive hearing test to look for indications of dysfunction in the middle ear, inner ear, or auditory nerve. Finally, the audiologist will make suggestions to help your child understand their tinnitus and to help them pay less attention to it. If indicated by medical history or test results, the audiologist will refer your child to an ear, nose, and throat physician (otolaryngologist) to rule out an underlying medical condition.

There is no cure for tinnitus, but it can be managed to significantly reduce its effects on a person’s daily life. Treatments for tinnitus include cognitive behavioral therapy, tinnitus retraining therapy, electrical or magnetic brain stimulation to change neural activity directly, and various sound therapies using specially modified sounds. The goal of these treatments is to modify the brain’s neural activity related to tinnitus either through neural modulation or through habituation.

How we care for tinnitus

The Boston Children’s Tinnitus and Decreased Sound Tolerance Program is a resource for children who are significantly distressed by tinnitus. Through an individualized approach with an audiologist using counseling and sound therapy techniques based on tinnitus retraining therapy, a child learns ways to promote habituation to tinnitus. Referral to a behavioral health provider will be recommended if anxiety or depression are suspected, or if a cognitive behavioral therapy approach to tinnitus management seems appropriate. The audiologist and behavioral health provider also can coordinate care.

If you are seeking help for your child’s tinnitus, call 617-355-6461 to schedule an audiological evaluation. For more information about the Tinnitus and Decreased Sound Tolerance Program, email tinnitus@childrens.harvard.edu.

Tinnitus | Programs & Services