And for many the effect can be significant, ranging from crippling bouts of insomnia to job-loss, depression and even suicide. Around seven million Britons are thought to suffer from tinnitus. Cher, Bono, Sylvester Stallone, Ozzy Osbourne and Steve Martin are all on record as having had the condition. It is even thought to have been the cause of Vincent Van Gogh's ear-slicing frenzy, while Barbra Streisand's famously fiery temper has been blamed on her suffering since the age of seven.
The Who's Pete Townshend also lives with the condition. He says, "It's painful, and it's frustrating." And Star Trek's William Shatner admits that the unrelenting noise associated with tinnitus made him contemplate ending his life. "It was like listening to the hiss of a TV that's not tuned to a channel. I thought I'd go deaf or nuts. I thought of killing myself."
Alan Sharp first noticed a continuous noise in his ears in February 1984, almost immediately after undergoing a course of chemotherapy during treatment for testicular cancer. "It was like when you go up in an aeroplane and your ears pop," says the 58-year-old retired solicitor from Edinburgh. "But because there were so many other things going on at the time, it was filed away as something that didn't need to be dealt with at the moment."
He describes the noise now as a constant hiss. "If I stopped and thought about it I would be aware of it," he says. "If you imagine a mini jet engine, that's what it is like – in both ears."
More worrying than the continuous noise, however, was the accompanying hearing loss, which proved to be a serious handicap for a solicitor. "There are only so many times you can ask someone to repeat something," he says.
"Having to appear in court I found a terrible strain because acoustics in court are not very good. It was awful. There were some embarrassing moments, when I would be cross-examining a witness and they would say, 'I've already answered that question.' And I'd have to say something quickly like, 'And I'd like to hear your answer again,' to make it sound convincing."
Meetings, too, were tricky, and Sharp would have to manoeuvre himself to one side of the table to try to make out what people were saying. He got an NHS hearing aid but that didn't help as it just amplified the volume of the sounds around him, rather than making them any clearer. So as time went on, he simply accepted that there was little he could do about the condition.
Fortunately, unlike many tinnitus sufferers, Sharp didn't experience problems with sleep. "Funnily enough, that was almost a positive, in that before this happened I had very acute hearing and therefore was a very poor sleeper; I would hear every little creak and noise, which kept me awake. But with the dullness of my hearing and the hissing noise, I slept a bit better."
But he still finds watching television difficult without subtitles, and going to the cinema is hit or miss. "The theatre as well: even though they have loop systems, I struggle to make out what's being said."
He soldiered on in his job for several years, under a terrible amount of stress, but eventually retired on health grounds last year. While the tinnitus is as bad as ever, he refuses to let it dominate his life. "It's unremitting; it has never ever stopped," he says. "But I'm resigned to it now.
"My wife and I have some interesting exchanges when I mishear what she has said. And it can be frustrating for other people, particularly socially, when you're in a crowd and can't really make out what's being said. You nod away and try to look as though you're following the conversation."
He has also managed to get a better hearing aid – which he had to pay for – and it has made a big difference to his life. But he says a sense of perspective also helps. "Don't let it get on top of you," he advises.
"There are too many important things to be concerned with, so try to put it to one side and get on with your life.
"If you concentrate on other things and if you're busy there are other noises going on. If you stop and listen, it will be there and you can let it worry you to death. But if you just get on with things, it is subsumed into the background."
Alternatively, you could adopt the attitude of Sir Jimmy Savile, who has learned to embrace his tinnitus. "It doesn't bother me in the slightest," he says. "It reminds me of all the girls I've known, and all the discos. I'm very happily ensconced with this friend inside my head."