Tinnitus is defined as a ringing or buzzing in the ears. Tinnitus is subjective, meaning you can hear it, but other people can't. About 1 out of every 10 Americans has tinnitus, and it's especially common among U.S. veterans.
Symptoms of tinnitus: Why do my ears ring?
A persistent ringing, buzzing, or whirring sound can indicate tinnitus. It can be loud or soft, pulsing or steady. You may feel like you have "ringing in the ears" or that your head is full. But tinnitus symptoms are different for every person. 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
While the underlying cause of many cases of tinnitus is never discovered, there are some common risk factors, which including aging, loud noise exposure, certain unhealthy habits, and many different health conditions, such as high blood pressure or Meinere's disease.
- Age: Around the age of 60, hearing sensitivity can start getting worse. Age-related hearing loss 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 drinking 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. (Hearing a pulsing sound, known as pulsatile tinnitus, should always be investigated by a doctor.)
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.
The seismic effect: 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.
How can I make my ears stop ringing?
Although there’s no proven cure for tinnitus, there are many different treatments that help make it easier to ignore. For example, because tinnitus is so common among people with hearing loss, properly fitted hearing aids can be very helpful. Modern hearing aids not only come with tinnitus masking features, they also help "retrain" the brain to focus on desired sounds, known as sound therapy. In other cases, tinnitus treatments can include medications.
Modern hearing aids not only come with tinnitus masking features, they also help "retrain" the brain to focus on desired sounds, known as sound therapy.
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.
Another treatment option is called tinnitus retaining therapy (TRT), and it is designed to teach you to ignore the background ringing noise in the ear, known as habituation. In addition to counseling sessions, a white noise generator is used to create environmental sounds to override the tinnitus.
In rare cases, tinnitus can lead to suicidal thoughts. Read more on why this happens, and what you can do about it in Tinnitus and suicidal thoughts: What to do when life feels overwhelming.
Do I have Meniere’s disease?
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.
What if my doctor doesn't take me seriously?
Tinnitus in and of itself is not life-threatening. However, because side effects can include mental distress, insomnia and other negative impacts, tinnitus should be taken seriously by your healthcare provider. If you're brushed off (which isn't uncommon, unfortunately), seek a different provider. Mental health care is an important part of proper tinnitus treatment, so contacting a therapist or psychiatrist is recommended if tinnitus is making it hard to cope.
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 for a thorough check of your auditory system. There are 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.