Most of us hear faint ringing sounds occasionally when there’s no external noise. Usually such sounds last a few minutes or, at most, several hours. But if ringing or other noises in your head are persistent, you likely have tinnitus. Though the term is from a Latin word meaning to ring like a bell, people with tinnitus may actually hear many sounds, from buzzing, tinkling, and humming to popping and clanging.
Researchers estimate that about 50 million Americans have tinnitus lasting longer than 6 months. About 12 million people have such severe symptoms that they have sought medical help. The remainder experience a low level of noise—usually in both ears but sometimes in just one—which can still be a nuisance, interfering with work, social life, and sleep.
The onset of tinnitus doesn’t signify that you will become seriously or permanently deaf, but tinnitus is often associated with some hearing loss—though it does not cause it. About 80 percent of Americans who have some hearing loss also experience tinnitus.
Tinnitus has been described by one expert as “listening to old age sneaking up on you,” since the great majority of tinnitus sufferers are middle-aged or older. It usually comes on slowly, with intermittent episodes that may become chronic with age. Still, some young people also experience tinnitus.
Objective tinnitus is a less frequent type of tinnitus in which your doctor can hear the noises you hear through a stethoscope in addition to you. Usually these sounds are produced by either movement of the jaw (the temporomandibular joint) or the flow of blood in major blood vessels of the head and neck. Although annoying, this is not usually a dangerous condition.
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What causes tinnitus?
While it’s true that the sounds of tinnitus are all “in your head,” they are nevertheless real. The physiological or neurological cause of such subjective sounds isn’t always known, but they are a symptom of something that has gone awry in the auditory system. For example, infections of the middle ear or a perforated eardrum can induce tinnitus, as can a buildup of wax or dirt in the outer ear or damage to the tiny bones of the middle ear that transmit sound.
One of the most common causes of tinnitus is exposure to loud noises such as gunshots, jet engines, jackhammers, chain saws, rock music, or industrial machinery. Tinnitus has also been linked to smoking, tumors of certain cranial nerves, head injuries, and excessive use of alcohol and aspirin. The majority of the time, tinnitus’s precise aetiology is unknown. Regardless of the specific cause, there is usually damage to the microscopic hair cells in the inner ear, particularly those responsible for detecting high-frequency sounds. Men experience tinnitus more frequently than women.
What if you do nothing?
Tinnitus rarely goes away, and it becomes more common with age. However, most people find that they adapt to its presence.
Home remedies for tinnitus
Removing earwax from your ear canal usually helps if the tinnitus is caused by a buildup of wax. When the cause of tinnitus is unknown—generally the case—the chances of medically correcting tinnitus are quite small. No standard drug or medical procedure relieves tinnitus. However, the following steps have proved effective in decreasing intensity.
- Drown out the noise. The most promising treatment for tinnitus may include replacing the annoying sounds with less annoying ones. For people with mild tinnitus, background sound from a radio or television may do the trick. White-noise machines that provide a low, continuous noise can offer the same effect. The ambient noises picked up by a hearing aid can lessen or even completely eradicate low- or medium-pitched tinnitus for the large number of people who have it due to hearing loss. You can also buy a “tinnitus masker,” a device that is worn like a hearing aid and emits a steady, monotonous noise like wind in trees or the hum of an electric fan.
- Cut back on—or avoid—caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. These substances can all make tinnitus worse.
- Reduce stress. Since tinnitus itself is uncomfortable and stressful events sometimes appear to make it worse, practically any relaxation method may help you deal. Some tinnitus sufferers have reported that biofeedback helped them temporarily. Claims have also been made for hypnosis and acupuncture, but there is little science to support them.
- Join a self-help group. There are local groups throughout the United States that can offer support along with information about new techniques and treatments. Contact the American Tinnitus Association or check online for a local support group near you.
How to prevent tinnitus
Avoid loud noise. This is one of the only preventive steps you can take. Use earplugs when necessary, and make sure that your work environment meets the federal guidelines for noise limits, which employers must follow.
When to call your doctor about tinnitus
If you hear persistent ringing or other noises, you should see your doctor, who will likely refer you to an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat specialist). The specialist can determine if the problem is due primarily to an ear condition or to another medical condition. For instance, surgery could assist with tinnitus relief if the underlying cause is otosclerosis (a fusing of tiny bones in the ear). If a middle ear infection is present, antibiotics may be used to treat it.
What your doctor will do
Your hearing will be evaluated, and the degree of tinnitus will be measured using a technique called loudness matching, in which you compare the noises you hear to external sounds. A complete medical and dental history will also be taken to help determine if the tinnitus is caused by other health problems.