About 20% of the population is afflicted with a symptom called tinnitus, which is when a person hears a noise in their ear, when there is no external source making that sound. The sound seems to be coming from inside the ear itself. It may be described as a high-pitched constant tone, or a ringing bell, a roaring, a buzzing, or even a pulsation.
The type of sounds heard vary from person to person. They often come and go, but some people notice them constantly. They may be louder at times, low or high-pitched, and may involve one or both ears. Sometimes the noise can be loud enough that it interferes with hearing other sounds and speech, or distracting enough that it is hard to concentrate, or even fall asleep.
- What usually causes tinnitus is a malfunction of the inner ear, which is sending signals to the brain that an external sound is occurring, but it is not. However, the sound is not just part of your imagination—there is a physical problem in the inner ear occurring.
- While often irritating, usually it does not indicate a serious underlying problem.
- Often, as a person gets older and they normally lose some hearing, they develop some tinnitus as a “sign of age”. Atherosclerosis, or build-up of cholesterol in the small blood vessels of the inner ear, may be a cause.
- People who have been exposed to lots of noise are particularly at risk. Loud noise exposure damages the inner ear. It could be noise from work, or any other source, such as loud music exposure with headphones or from nightclubs or concerts.
- Less commonly, tinnitus may be a side effect of medications (even aspirin), an earwax accumulation, or problems with the jaw joint in front of the ear (TMJ).
- Rare causes include a benign tumor in the inner ear, Meneire’s disease (accompanied by dizziness), a blood vessel growth, or a stiffening of the bones of the middle ear (otosclerosis).
- It is more common in men, and smoking makes it worse.
- If you have tinnitus, particularly if it is only in one ear or is getting louder, you should see an ear doctor to get checked. He will look inside your ear and probably do a hearing test. Depending on the results of the hearing test, other tests, such as resonance scans, might be needed.
- Stress often makes it worse. If you can find a way to relax, often the tinnitus improves.
- People with tinnitus usually notice it more in quiet situations. If there is some other neutral (or “white”) noise around, such as a fan or air conditioner, the tinnitus will not be as noticeable.
Unless some specific cause can be found (such as excess earwax or a problem with the middle ear bones), there is usually no cure, but there are many ways to minimize the problem. If the sufferer has a hearing loss, a hearing aid often helps. Sometimes a small hearing aid device that makes white noise (called a “masking device”) helps. If stress is part of the problem, sometimes meditation, getting more exercise, or counseling is helpful.
Often, being exposed to too much loud noise in the past is part of the cause, so a person with tinnitus needs to be extra careful to protect their ears from loud noise, which will cause the tinnitus to get worse.
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