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Do Your Ears Ring?
What do Barbara Streisand, Captain Kirk, and 10-14% of the North American population have in common? The answer is tinnitus (ti-night -us) or (tin -i-tus).
Tinnitus refers to the noises heard in the head when no corresponding sound is present outside the ears. Many different sounds have been described including ringing, hissing, buzzing, crackling, booming, roaring, clicking, or pulsing.
Almost everybody has experienced tinnitus briefly after hearing loud noises or after getting whiplash or a blow to the head.
About 1 in 200 people will have tinnitus so badly that it affects their ability to lead a normal life. Persons suffering with tinnitus may also have a sensation of fullness or pressure around their ears and occasionally have pain.
What’s the cause?
Common causes of tinnitus are hearing loss (often due to aging), exposure to loud noises, whiplash injury, a blow to the head, ears plugged with wax, ear infections, and emotional or physical stress. Less common causes include medications, heart and nerve disorders, non-cancerous tumors on the ‘hearing nerve’ in the head, and abnormalities of the bones or tissues in the ear. Tinnitus is rarely life threatening.
Tinnitus might be worsened by lack of sleep, excessive alcohol use, or by caffeine or marijuana.
Your doctor will interview you, examine your head and neck, and may order hearing tests. You may need to see an ENT (ears, nose, and throat) specialist.
Can it be treated?
Treatment will depend on the specific cause of the tinnitus. Your doctor may clean ears, prescribe antibiotics, or treat other medical disorders if present.
In general, tinnitus tends to be more irritating at night (maybe because it is quieter and there are fewer distractions). This causes people to have more stress and anxiety which in turn can worsen the tinnitus. Try to break this vicious circle.
Relaxation and stress-relieving techniques should be tried. Many techniques have been used including deep breathing, hypnosis, therapeutic massage, regular exercise programs, and Yoga. No one method works for everyone.
Captain Kirk (a.k.a. William Shatner) found great relief in masking devices. Maskers are tiny hearing-aid like devices that produce ‘white sound’. White sound may be a soft hush or other sound that is more acceptable than the buzz or ring of the tinnitus. Masking devices “cover over” the tinnitus sound. Proper re-training can decrease the annoying effect of tinnitus. Re-training is when you change the noise level of the masker regularly to train your ear and mind to get used to the tinnitus.
Other distractions from tinnitus include listening to a Walkman, FM static on the radio, or background music (such as environmental sounds like waves).
Hearing aids may increase the amount of background noise that you hear around you and ‘mask’ the tinnitus.
Many medications have been used over the years. The Egyptians used frankincense and oils to