Tinnitus: Stopping the Sound in Your Head
In a silence where some people could hear a pin drop, people with tinnitus hear a constant ringing in their ears. Or the sound may be a popping, rushing, pinging, chirping, whistling, or roaring.
Some people describe it as a freight train constantly rolling through their brains. But tinnitus has nothing to do with actual sound waves hitting the ear.
What causes tinnitus
Millions of Americans have tinnitus. For nearly 25% of them, the phantom noise is distracting enough that they seek medical advice. About 2 million experience tinnitus as a life-altering, disabling condition.
People with hearing loss also can have tinnitus. Being exposed to loud noise for a long time can cause tinnitus, as well as hearing loss. Many medicines can cause tinnitus. If you think that your medicine is causing your tinnitus, talk with your healthcare provider. Allergies, tumors, heart problems, and jaw and neck illnesses also can cause tinnitus.
Ninety percent of people with tinnitus have hearing loss. The condition also can be caused by simple wax buildup in the ear canal, ear or sinus infections, and TM joint (temporomandibular joint) problems.
How to treat it
Sometimes tinnitus is a short-term (temporary) symptom of a physical problem. In those cases, treating the physical problem may end the tinnitus. For example, having a healthcare provider remove earwax may stop the tinnitus.
In most other cases there is no known cure. But doing the following can provide relief.
Have a checkup by an ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT or otolaryngologist). Or get care from an audiologist. If tinnitus is affecting your quality of life and daily activities, a healthcare provider can help you manage your condition. Anyone who has tinnitus should get medical care to rule out any physical problems.
If you have both hearing loss and tinnitus, see your provider for help with both problems. You may want to try these treatments:
A masking device. This device makes a low-level sound. It helps you to ignore the tinnitus and fall asleep. Listening to radio static at low volume also can help.
A tabletop sound generator. This device uses nature sounds to help you ignore tinnitus. This includes sounds such as a babbling brook, ocean waves, or forest life.
Medicine therapy. Medicines are available that may ease tinnitus. But more research is needed to confirm how well they work. If your provider prescribes a medicine, ask if there are any side effects.
Tinnitus retraining therapy. This method also uses a masking device. But this is done at a lower intensity than the tinnitus. This can help the brain filter out (habituate to) the sound. Cognitive behavioral therapy is included to help treat the person's emotional reaction to tinnitus.
Biofeedback. This relaxation method often helps to ease tinnitus symptoms, by helping to reduce stress.
Other treatments that help some people with tinnitus include cochlear implants. These are only available to people who are totally deaf. Or to people with profound hearing loss in both ears. There are also medicines that reduce anxiety or depression, or that help you sleep. Ask your provider which treatment may work best for you.
What can I do for myself?
Here are some tips on coping with tinnitus:
Think about things that will help you cope. Many people find listening to music very helpful. Focusing on music may help you forget about your tinnitus for a while. It can also help hide the sound. Other people like to listen to recorded nature sounds such as ocean waves, the wind, or crickets.
Keep away from anything that can make your tinnitus worse. This includes smoking, alcohol, and loud noise. In some cases it's helpful to wear earplugs or special earmuffs. These can protect your hearing and keep your tinnitus from getting worse. If you are a construction worker, airport worker, or hunter, or if you are regularly exposed to loud noise at home or work, always wear protective hearing devices.
Ask friends and family for help. If it is hard for you to hear over your tinnitus, explain your condition to your friends and family and ask them to face you when they talk. Then you can see their faces. Seeing their expressions may help you understand them better. Ask people to speak louder, but not shout. Also tell them they don't have to speak slowly, just more clearly.
You may hear your heartbeat in your ear or a swishing sound. This may mean that a more serious condition is present. You should see an ear, nose, and throat specialist for further evaluation.