Many people experience a persistent ringing in their ears. This common affliction, known as tinnitus, affects roughly 20% of the American population. Tinnitus is defined as the perception of sound when none is actually occurring. For some it is a minor nuisance but for others, a major impediment to their quality of life.

It is important to note that tinnitus isn’t a disease itself, but a symptom. As such, it can occur as the result of a number of conditions. These include hearing loss, noise exposure, head or neck trauma, high blood pressure, vascular disorders, heart conditions, ototoxic medications, benign tumors known as acoustic neuromas, and impacted earwax. Sometimes, the cause is never determined. Individuals most at risk are male, over the age of 40, and smokers.

Tinnitus is most often described as a ringing in the ears, but may also take the form of a buzzing, whooshing, roaring, clicking, hissing or whistling. Some tinnitus sufferers experience severe mental and emotional anguish. Side effects include fatigue, depression, anxiety, irritability, and memory/concentration problems.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for tinnitus itself. Unless the underlying condition responsible for symptoms is identified and can be treated, your only real course of action is learning to live with the phantom sounds.

Doctors have developed a variety of successful strategies for dealing with tinnitus. The most popular is white noise therapy. This principle uses random sound frequencies distributed throughout the hearing spectrum to disguise the persistent background noises. The patient learns to mask out these sounds. Electronic devices made solely for this purpose exist, though the same effect can be achieved through use of an air conditioner, fan or humidifier.

A similar concept involves acoustic neural stimulation. Acoustic signals are delivered through a handheld device, helping the neural circuits to become desensitized to the noise.

Patients with hearing aids can turn up the volume and drown out the annoying ringing noises associated with tinnitus.