Ringing in Ears

Tinnitus (from the Latin tinnire, meaning to ring or tinkle like a bell) is associated with a buzzing, roaring or ringing in the ear not associated with sounds in the environment. Although it's not uncommon to experience occasional brief spells of ringing in the ears, especially after exposure to loud noises, persistent and troublesome tinnitus, as you've discovered, can be nerve-racking. You may find it occasionally annoying, or you may be severely tormented by the incessant sounds within your head.

Tinnitus occurs most frequently after age 40 and affects 37 million Americans. The irritating sounds can be heard in one or both ears, or inside your head. People who suffer from tinnitus often describe a buzzing or humming sound. Others describe the sounds they hear as ringing, hissing, whistling, an ocean roar, or crickets. Typically, it is no louder than a whisper that resembles ringing, hissing, clicking, buzzing or sizzling sounds. Tinnitus may be a single episode or become chronic and debilitating. Tinnitus in only one ear more often signals a problem, such as a tumor, and should be promptly evaluated.

Perception of sounds depends on structures inside the inner ear. Microscopic hairs that resemble somewhat the bristles on a toothbrush cover the surface of certain cells in your inner ear. When healthy, these "bristles" move in response to the pressure of sound waves being transmitted from the eardrum to the fluid-filled inner ear. Movement of these bristles or hairs releases electrical messages which are transmitted to the brain. Damage to the tiny hairs causes increasing disarray, making the hairs appear bent or broken. This causes the hair cells to send spontaneous electric impulses to the brain instead of sending only impulses generated by sound waves. You interpret these random electrical impulses as noise - high-frequency ringing, buzzing, or roaring.

While tinnitus itself won't cause deafness, it is often a sign of damage to the inner ear that may eventually result in loss of hearing. One person out of ten has some type of hearing problem and 85 percent of these people have tinnitus. The most common causes of tinnitus associated with deafness are age-related hearing loss or excessive exposure to loud noises, including blaring music, gunshots at close range, lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners, and other machinery.

Tinnitus is also the prime symptom of Meniere's disease - an inner ear disorder marked by loss of equilibrium and hearing loss. Impacted ear wax or an upper respiratory infection can cause temporary tinnitus. Generally, the ringing subsides a few months after the infection clears. Although tinnitus is often a sign of disease in the ear, it may be the first or only symptom of disease originating outside the ear. For example, it can be associated with anemia, thyroid problems and high blood pressure. Medications can trigger tinnitus, and some of the most common are high doses of aspirin and quinine. Caffeine and nicotine can make the problem worse. Stress or anxiety may also aggravate the condition. Rarely, a doctor can also hear the sounds with a stethoscope. This type of tinnitus - called objective tinnitus - may be due to vascular problems such as an aneurysm or blood flowing through narrowed vessels in the head or neck.

A thorough ear examination and complete medical history by a physician who specializes in diseases of the ears, nose and throat is the first step for anyone who experiences symptoms of tinnitus. If the examination rules out active disease and no correctable cause if found, several methods are available to help lessen the effects of this distressing symptom.

These methods may help you cope with tinnitus:

  • Maskers - Play background music or tune your FM radio between stations to create soft static. A room fan or other noise may serve the same purpose. This sound may be more pleasant than the internal noises. If you have severe tinnitus, you may get relief by wearing an electronic device that looks like a hearing aid. An audiologist can set the masking noise at the pitch and loudness of your tinnitus to bring relief, yet not interfere with conversational hearing
  • If you have a hearing loss associated with tinnitus, talk to your doctor. Your physician may recommend a hearing aid, which may be more helpful than a masker.
  • Biofeedback - Stress and anxiety can aggravate tinnitus. Biofeedback therapy can help you learn to control severe muscle spasm and tension.
  • Ear protection - Wear ear plugs or ear muffs to protect your ears whenever you are around loud noises.
  • Lifestyle - Nicotine and caffeine constrict your blood vessels and may worsen tinnitus.
  • Medications - The U. S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved any drug to treat tinnitus specifically. An antidepressant often relieves severe anxiety-induced tinnitus. If you are under stress or grind your teeth, a muscle relaxant may help.

No single treatment can relieve tinnitus. If you have the problem, see your doctor for a medical exam and hearing evaluation. Occasionally, tinnitus is related to a serious medical condition that needs correction, although treatment still may not cure tinnitus. As many as 75 percent of people with tinnitus claim that their symptoms improved with time. If it has been more than a year since you last visited your physician about this problem, we suggest you make another appointment. Be sure to discuss with your doctor the effect tinnitus is having on your life. Your doctor may be able to suggest additional measures to help you cope better with the problem.

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