If you’ve ever been to a loud concert or sporting event and left with a ringing or buzzing in your ears, you experienced a common condition called tinnitus. About 50 million Americans have experienced tinnitus, and about 20 million have a form severe enough that it can disrupt their quality of life.
“Tinnitus is the auditory perception of ringing or noises inside of your ears that no one else can hear,” says UNC Health audiologist Patricia Johnson, AuD.
While it is often described as a ringing in the ear, it can be other noises as well.
“People will describe it as crickets chirping, a machine humming, a fan noise or even ocean waves. It can be described in all sorts of ways,” Dr. Johnson says.
The sound you hear is not actually in your ear. It’s being generated by a miscommunication between the auditory system and the brain. Similar to phantom limb syndrome, the damaged auditory system generates sound in the absence of appropriate stimulation. That’s what makes it so frustrating.
“You can imagine how disturbing it is for someone who has a severe case of tinnitus, where it can be quite loud, but you can’t escape your own head,” Dr. Johnson says. “There’s no turning it off. We can’t close our ears the way we can with our eyeballs.”
Causes of Tinnitus
Several health conditions can cause or worsen tinnitus. Obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and arthritis can increase your risk of tinnitus, but often an exact cause is never found.
“Tinnitus is not a disease unto itself. It is always the symptom of something else that’s going on,” Dr. Johnson says.
A common—and solvable—cause of tinnitus is wax buildup.
“Some people develop temporary tinnitus when their ears are completely blocked with wax,” Dr. Johnson says.
Other common causes of tinnitus include:
- Noise-induced hearing loss
- Injury to the auditory system
- Medications, including certain antibiotics and chemotherapy drugs
Treatment for Tinnitus
There is not a direct cure for tinnitus, so don’t waste your money on supplements or pills that claim they can help. However, there are ways to help manage it if it is affecting your quality of life. Also, if medications or other health conditions are triggering your tinnitus, talk to your primary care provider. If medication is causing your tinnitus, stopping or changing your medication may help. And if your tinnitus is caused by a health condition, addressing the condition also may help your tinnitus.
“Just because there is not a cure doesn’t mean there aren’t options,” Dr. Johnson says.
1. See an audiologist.
This healthcare expert will assess your hearing and tinnitus and try to determine the cause.
“If there’s also hearing loss, treating the hearing loss very often helps the tinnitus,” Dr. Johnson says. “Many people find that their tinnitus is much relieved while they’re wearing their hearing aids.”
If the tinnitus is like a candle, then improving auditory stimulation via hearing aids is like turning on the light in the room. The candle is still burning, but it is not as noticeable.
2. Mask the noise you are hearing.
Play music on a low volume, invest in a white noise machine or find a free app on your mobile device that plays masking noise.
“The idea is to raise the noise floor just enough so that there’s kind of this underlying background sound that will help mask the tinnitus,” Dr. Johnson says. “Just a little bit of extra noise can distract the brain from the noise that it’s generating on its own.”
3. Avoid triggers that may heighten your tinnitus.
Tinnitus often flares when you’re stressed or fatigued or when you consume too much caffeine or alcohol. To help manage it, limit or avoid caffeine or alcohol, get plenty of sleep and try to manage stress levels (which is sometimes easier said than done).
4. Regulate your feelings about the tinnitus.
Sometimes tinnitus can feel very distressing.
“Some individuals feel trapped or hopeless about their tinnitus,” Dr. Johnson says.
A mental health professional can help.
“In severe cases, we can refer someone to a psychologist for cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness techniques and breathing techniques to actually uncouple the negative feeling from the tinnitus itself,” Dr. Johnson says. “It helps to acknowledge the tinnitus—‘It’s not harmful to me. It’s my old friend. I’m going to take some deep breaths. I am in control.’ That can go a long way for those people who are feeling most desperate.”
If you think you may have tinnitus, talk to your audiologist. If you do not have one, find one near you or contact the UNC Hearing and Communication Center. Additional resources about tinnitus can be found through the American Tinnitus Association.