Are your ears ringing? Some may say it means that someone is talking about you, but unfortunately this is not likely the cause. These sounds you hear probably came on gradually and can be soft or loud, low or high pitched, and occur in one or both ears. The buzzing, ringing, or chirping that you hear may not itself be an illness, but instead a symptom of another health issue.
Due to its nature as a symptom instead of an illness, tinnitus is simply defined as the “hearing of sound when no external sound is present”. Due to this, an audiologist will work in conjunction with your regular physician to determine the illness that is causing your ears to ring. This system of determination will begin with a specialized questionnaire designed to determine the level at which tinnitus is interfering with your life. You may then be given an audiogram, or hearing test, and possibly a neurological exam. If those tests do not give a clear indication for why your ears are ringing you will be sent for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to rule out more serious conditions. This is especially true in cases of “objective” tinnitus when the sounds can be heard by someone else using a stethoscope.
The battery of tests involved in finding the cause of tinnitus are directly related to the illnesses from which this sometimes debilitating symptom may stem. Of course, noise-induced hearing loss is the reason for ringing ears in up to 90 percent of sufferers. However, if you are hearing “whooshing” sounds instead of the more common ringing noises, you may be suffering from a heart or blood vessel disease. Likewise, your tinnitus may be related to Ménière’s disease. This is likely if you also suffer from other symptoms such as vertigo, hearing loss, headaches, and feeling of fullness in the affected ear or ears. Meanwhile, it may simply be related to medications you are taking. Tinnitus has been cited as a potential side effect for about 200 prescription and non-prescription drugs including aspirin, antibiotics, and sedatives. At the same time, the ringing in your ears could be due to something as minute as an ear infection, wax buildup, or emotional distress or it may be something much more serious like a previous head injury or brain tumor.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for tinnitus, but you can treat the underlying health issue that is causing the symptom. For most patients this will involve a dedicated effort to avoid further exposure to loud noises or wear protective devices if exposure is necessary. In addition, your audiologist may suggest that you avoid alchohol, tobacco smoke, salt, and caffeinated beverages as these may worsen tinnitus in some people. Many patients report a change in the intensity of the tinnitus with movement of the shoulder, head, tongue, jaw or eyes. Another treatment may involve Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This psychological therapy will not reduce the likelihood for tinnitus, but can help patients learn to cope with the ringing and live an improved quality of life. Other treatments may involve talk therapy, sound generators, or hearing aids.
Some patients worry that a ringing in the ears is a sign of hearing loss or other serious medical problem, but this is rarely the case. Many people suffer from a short-term bout of tinnitus following exposure to extremely loud noises and this does not usually warrant treatment. Tinnitus affects an estimated 50 million adults in the U.S., but only about 10 percent of adults will experience tinnitus lasting more than five minutes. If the ringing in your ears is persistent and not likely caused by recent exposure to loud sounds, it may be time to seek help and find the underlying reasons.