Do you hear that ringing in your ears and wonder where it comes from? You’re not alone. It is estimated by the Hearing Health Foundation that 20 percent of Americans hear that same ringing sound, or ones similar to it, each day. Only around 16 percent of those with tinnitus will discuss the problem with a physician even though it disrupts their lives. Of that 20 percent, 90 percent of them also live with hearing loss even if they realize it. It is a growing concern throughout the country, but what does all the noise mean?
Tinnitus is the medical name for the phantom sound in your ears. There is no one source for this noise – it’s actually a symptom of another problem, one usually associated with loss of hearing.
Tinnitus is more of a sensation than an actual sound, too. This is why no one else hears the noise that’s keeping you awake at night. There are no sound waves causing this phenomenon, instead, it relates directly to tiny hairs inside the inner ear that produce an electrical signal telling the brain there is a sound. These cells are misfiring, sending random electrical impulses not based on any true noise.
There is More to Tinnitus Than Just Ringing
Tinnitus is usually described as a high-pitched ringing, but not everyone hears the same thing. Some report:
Others say it sounds like you are pressing your ear up against a seashell to hear the waves. The diversity of sounds is one thing that makes this condition confusing, especially for some who fails to get medical treatment or a hearing test.
What is Behind Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is basically a mechanical breakdown of a critical element in the inner ear. For most people with it, the answer is presbycusis, an age-related cause of hearing loss. It’s a problem that gets worse after age 60. Other possible causes of tinnitus include:
- Exposure to loud noises – This could be a one-time bang or daily hearing abuse from machines, headphones or loud music
- Earwax – Build up of earwax causes temporary hearing loss that triggers the ringing
- Changes in the ear bones – This is a hereditary condition caused by abnormal bone growth in the ear
There are other possibilities, but less common, triggers for tinnitus, too, such as Ménière’s disease, a condition that leads to abnormal fluid pressure in the inner ear. TMJ disorders may also be at the heart of that phantom sound. For some, the noise is a consequence of a head injury that damaged the nerves in the ear. It might also be a sign of high blood pressure, a rare tumor in the ear or a side effect of a medication.
What Can You Do About Tinnitus?
The first step is to get a hearing test and ear examination to find the root cause of the problem. Once you treat the underlying condition, like getting hearing aids, the tinnitus may become less prevalent or disappear completely. Tinnitus is usually a sign of hearing loss that may be affecting your life in other ways, too, like isolating you during conversations or leaving you feeling like you are missing things. Once you identify your hearing loss, then getting hearing aids increases real sounds so the phantom ones are less of an issue.
There are other things you can do at home, too, to help deal with what can be an annoying and distracting problem. White noise machines produce environmental sounds that soothe your mind, especially if tinnitus is keeping you awake. You can fall asleep listening to the rain, for example, instead of that buzzing in your head.
You can create your own background noise, too, to deflect some of the tinnitus chaos. A fan blowing in the room might help or a humidifier – anything that produces a soft, but persistent sound to keep the hair cells in the ear busy so they don’t misfire.
It’s important to remember, though, that the ringing is trying to tell you something. Most likely the message is about hearing loss, so it’s worth a trip to the doctor to get a hearing test and find out more about your ear health.