Have you ever heard a ringing in your ears and wondered what to do? Up to 50 million people report having tinnitis in the U.S. Yet it is typically a benign condition. What can cause it? And how should you treat it?
“Dear House Call Doctor,
Would you do a podcast about ringing in the ears in the future?”
What a great suggestion, W.S. Thank you. Ringing in the ears, referred to as “tinnitus” in doctor-lingo, is quite common. In fact, approximately 50 million people in the U.S. suffer from this annoying medical condition. Let’s learn what tinnitus really is, what can cause it, and how you can treat it.
What Is Tinnitis?
If you’ve ever experienced it, you know what it feels like. Tinnitis refers to a misperceived sound that is not externally audible. Patients describe it as a “buzzing” or “ringing,” “clicking,” or “pulsating,” and even akin to a “factory working in my brain.” It can be loud or only faintly audible. It can involve only one ear or both. For most, it is intermittent but can become chronic in 1 in 4 sufferers.
It is often worse in the mornings upon awakening, at bed time, or when it is most quiet. This is because our brains are good at tuning out unnecessary stimuli. So when there are other noises in the room, the nuisance is not as well-perceived.
Most people that experience it tell me that it’s not bothersome. But on occasion, a patient will report that it is severe enough to interfere with daily activities.
Causes of Tinnitis
Most cases of tinnitus are benign and nothing serious. Most causes are due to tiny damage to the hair cells that line the inner ear. Just like arthritis and joint changes with age, this can be due to normal wear and tear through age, but other factors can also contribute.
Here are some factors that have been reported in studies to increase risk of tinnitus:
· Age: Risk for tinnitus development increases as we get older.
· Non-Hispanic Whites
· Noise exposure: Work-related noise that is chronic is a consideration. So are concerts, listening to loud music, and exposure to firearm noise.
· Prior cigarette smoking
· Anxiety disorder and/or depression
· Hearing loss
· Meniere’s disease: These patients report a triad of symptoms, to include tinnitus, hearing loss, and dizziness
· Medications: Aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAID), some blood pressure medications, benzodiazepines, drugs used to treat prostate enlargement, certain antibiotics, and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) used to treat stomach acid disorders
· Trauma to the head and neck (secondary to trauma to the blood vessels and/or nerves in the vicinity)
· Tumor of the vestibular nerve, or other nearby structures
· Blood vessel disorders
· Neurologic disorders
Tinnitis that is described as a “clicking” often (but not always) reflects muscle spasms of the muscles surrounding the ear and ear canal. And a “pulsating” description can sometimes be due to blood vessel anomalies that really warrant further investigation. Therefore, it’s important to thoroughly describe the sound when discussing it with your doctor in order to help delineate the cause.