Ringing in your ears? You’re in good company.
According to a national health study performed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 45 million Americans suffer from ringing in the ears, or tinnitus. Nearly one-third of them find it so debilitating they seek medical attention for possible relief.
Tinnitus is the medical term that refers to the perception of sound in one or both ears when no sound is actually present in the environment. While there’s no proven cure for tinnitus, understanding the symptoms, causes and related illnesses, can help ease, manage or block out the ringing-in-the-ears sensation.
Symptoms of tinnitus
Ringing-in-the-ears or a fullness-of-the-head sensation are the most common symptoms of tinnitus. While ringing is the most common experience, the noise can also sound like a buzzing, hissing or whizzing sound. It can range from a low pitch to a high pitch and may be soft or loud at times. For some, tinnitus seems to get louder at night, just before sleep when no other sounds are competing with it. Tinnitus can remain constant or come and go intermittently. In severe cases, the ringing in the ears is loud enough to interfere with work or daily activity, whereas those with mild tinnitus can experience soft ringing that is no more than a minor annoyance.
Causes of tinnitus
With so many people suffering from tinnitus, it is important to investigate what causes the ringing sensation. While the underlying cause of many cases of tinnitus is never discovered, there are some common causes which, in general, are known to aggravate the condition:
- Age: Around the age of 60, hearing sensitivity can start getting worse. Hearing loss associated with natural aging is called presbycusis, and it can be accompanied by tinnitus.
- Loud noise exposure: Being exposed to occupational loud noise on a regular basis from heavy equipment, chain saws or firearms is a common cause of tinnitus. However, even if you don’t work in a noisy environment, you can still suffer the effects of noise exposure by listening to loud music through headphones, attending live music performances frequently and engaging in noisy hobbies.
- Unhealthy habits: Researchers are not entirely certain why, but drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, eating certain foods and consuming caffeinated beverages can play a role in tinnitus.
- Common ailments: Having anemia, allergies, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, circulatory problems, diabetes and an underactive thyroid gland are all medical conditions that can lead to tinnitus.
Can tinnitus sound like clicking?
In most cases, no. Most tinnitus sounds like a ringing, hissing or buzzing sound. If you do hear a persistent clicking sound, it's worth investigating to find out where it is coming from.
For some people, the jarring motion of brisk walking can produce what is called a seismic effect which causes movement in the small bones or contractions in the muscles of the middle ear space. You can experiment to find out if this is the cause by walking slowly and smoothly to see if the clicking is present. Then, try walking quickly and with a lot of motion to see if you hear the clicking. You can also test for the seismic effect by moving your head up and down quickly.
If you do detect the seismic effect, it is likely nothing that indicates a serious medical condition. However, if it is a constant annoyance, by all means discuss it with your hearing care professional.
Treatment for tinnitus
People with tinnitus often view their suffering as a common part of everyday life they learn to cope with. Because many cases of tinnitus aren’t severe enough for medical treatment, some people turn to alternative therapies for finding relief.
Many people find improving their overall health provides some comfort from tinnitus symptoms. This means controlling your blood pressure, reducing stress and decreasing caffeine consumption. Other tinnitus relief strategies include relaxation exercises, meditation and visualization.
Although there’s no proven cure for tinnitus, there are treatments that help make it easier to ignore. For example, you can wear devices in your ear(s) that produce soothing therapeutic noises to shift your focus away from the tinnitus. Other devices produce constant, soft noise to mask the tinnitus. Tinnitus sufferers who also have hearing loss sometimes find relief simply by wearing properly fitted hearing aids.
Another treatment option is called tinnitus retaining therapy (TRT), and it is designed to teach the patient to ignore the background ringing noise in the ear. In addition to counseling sessions, a white noise generator is used to create environmental sounds to override the tinnitus.
Tinnitus causing extreme feelings of depression, anxiety or suicide? Contact a mental health professional or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Meniere’s disease isn’t directly connected to tinnitus, but people with Meniere’s often experience it, at least temporarily. Meniere's disease is an inner ear disease that typically only affects one ear. This disease can cause pressure or pain in the ear, severe cases of dizziness or vertigo and a ringing or roaring tinnitus. While Meniere’s isn’t fully understood, it appears that several relief options for tinnitus can also help with this disease. Patients are often advised to reduce stress and lower their consumption of caffeine and sodium.
Getting help for tinnitus
If you have tinnitus, you might be feeling frustrated and helpless, but there is hope! The first step is to consult a hearing care professional at one of our consumer-reviewed clinics. There are also audiologists who specialize in managing tinnitus and many non-medical ways to help you regain your quality of life. Learn more through the links here and, when you’re ready, let us help you connect with a professional in your area.