At some point, everybody’s ears have played tricks on them. Maybe you’ve heard a text message come in, a knock at the door or even someone saying your name — but when you went to check? Nothing. We’ve all done it, and we’ve all passed it off as the wind, a busy mind or an overactive imagination.
But what if the noise doesn’t stop?
For millions of Americans living with tinnitus, constant noise is a daily reality, and no amount dismissing it can make it go away.
Tinnitus is a condition where patients hear sound that doesn’t have an external source. Many people experience tinnitus as a high-pitched ringing, but it can also sound like humming, buzzing, whooshing, clicking or your own heartbeat. While there is no singular treatment for tinnitus, you can work with your doctor to pinpoint the cause and find effective technique for managing or alleviating your symptoms.
Think you may be experiencing the symptoms of tinnitus? Read on to discover possible causes, as well as tests and treatment your doctor may recommend.
What Causes the Ringing in Your Ears?
One of the most frustrating things for patients and doctors alike is that finding a root cause for tinnitus can be challenging.
That’s because tinnitus isn’t a disease, but rather a symptom — a signal that something else is going on in your body.
It could be brought on by something as benign as earwax buildup, or by something more difficult to spot. If you are experiencing tinnitus, some possible causes include:
- Trauma: Head and neck injuries in particular can cause damage to the middle and inner ear, which can lead to symptoms of tinnitus.
- Exposure to loud noise: Deep in the inner ear are microscopic hairs called cilia. These highly sensitive hairs sway and move in response to sound waves, sending the sensation of sound to our brains. Loud noises can permanently damage the cilia, bending and breaking them and scrambling the signals they send to our brain. That auditory signal misfiring can result in the intermittent or constant sounds of tinnitus.
- Medications: Drugs such as aspirin, antibiotics and quinine can bring on tinnitus symptoms. In fact, more than 200 different drugs have tinnitus as a side effect.
- Meniere’s disease: Symptoms include dizziness, tinnitus, fullness in the ear or hearing loss that can last for hours but then goes away.
- Acoustic neuroma: Rarely, this type of brain tumor can grow on the nerve that supplies hearing.
- Pulsatile tinnitus: This tinnitus occurs when you can hear your own heartbeat in your ears. It’s related to blood flow, either through normal or abnormal blood vessels near the ear.
How Will the Doctor Find the Cause of the Sound?
Everyone experiences tinnitus a little differently — and those differences can offer clues into the cause.
At your initial evaluation, your doctor will review your medical history and ask lots of questions about your symptoms, like:
- How long has this been going on?
- Do you hear the sound in one or both ears?
- Is the sound always there? Or does it come and go?
- How loud is the noise?
- Is the pitch high or low?
- Does the sound change?
- Is it worse at certain times of the day?
- Is it a pulsing sensation, like a heartbeat?
- Are there certain things that make it worse, like noise or certain foods?
- How much does this bother you? A little or a lot?
Your doctor will then examine your ears, head and neck and perform some basic hearing tests. At this point, they may prescribe you a course of treatment or refer you to a specialist for more extensive testing.
What Tests Will a Specialist Perform?
An audiologist can perform tests to better understand and treat your tinnitus, including:
- A complete hearing test called an audiogram.
- A pitch match test to determine the frequency of sound you are hearing. For this exam you’ll be asked to identify the pitch of your tinnitus by comparing it to tones you’ll hear through headphones.
- A loudness match test to determine the volume of the sounds you are hearing.
- Imaging tests like a CT or MRI scan to get a better look at the inner-workings of your ear.
How Will the Doctors Treat My Tinnitus?
There are many treatment options for tinnitus depending on the underlying cause. If your doctor has ruled out a treatable medical condition or prescription drug interaction as the culprit, there are a variety of approaches you can take to manage your condition.
While tinnitus is often a long-term or permanent condition, many will find relief — or even see their symptoms disappear entirely — by experimenting with the treatments and techniques below to find what works best for them.
- Improve your physical health: Eating a diet rich in vitamins and minerals, making time for regular exercise and getting at least eight hours of sleep a night can all greatly improve symptoms of tinnitus.
- Concentrate on your mental health: Stress can kick-start tinnitus and exacerbate your condition. Your doctor may prescribe an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication, or recommend cognitive behavioral therapy. You can work on your mental health at home by exercising, getting enough sleep and incorporating yoga or meditation into your daily routine.
- Use sound generators to distract you: These could include fans, radios, or white noise machines. You can also purchase a wearable sound generator or a hearing aid that generates sound specifically to counteract tinnitus symptoms.
- Consider alternative therapies: Some tinnitus patients find relief from herbal supplements including garlic and ginkgo biloba, acupuncture or chiropractic care.