If you hear a ringing, hissing, or buzzing noise in your ears, but there is no external noise, you probably have tinnitus. We also refer to it as ringing in the ears. The condition may be chronic, i.e., long-term, or temporary, and it can affect children and adults of all ages.
The Online Etymology Dictionary says that the term first appeared in the English language in 1843. It came from the Latin word TINNITUS, which means ‘a ringing or jingling’, and from TINNIRE, which means ‘to ring’.
A study published in the Indian Journal of Otolaryngology Head Neck Surgery found that tinnitus affects approximately 7% of India’s population. The American Tinnitus Association states that about 10% of American adults experience some form of tinnitus. The British Society of Audiology says that approximately 13% of British adults experience prolonged ringing in the ears.
Causes of tinnitus
The following factors may cause tinnitus:
- Loud noises
If you attend, work at, or perform at loud concerts, use headphones or earbuds at high volume regularly and for long periods, or work in a very noisy environment, your risk of developing temporary or permanent tinnitus is greater than it is for the rest of the population.
- Ear infections
An ear infection or inflammation could lead to tinnitus.
- Accumulation of earwax
If too much earwax builds up, it can block your canal and create pressure, which can lead to hearing problems.
- Certain medications
Some painkillers, antibiotics, and antidepressants can cause ringing in the ears.
- Age-related hearing loss
A higher percentage of seniors suffer from ringing or buzzing in the ears than their younger counterparts.
Neck or head injuries can lead to hearing problems.
- Illnesses or conditions
Some patients with Meniere’s disease, TMJ (temporomandibular joint) disorders, thyroid disorders, multiple sclerosis, acoustic neuroma, or diabetes complain of ringing in the ears.
Signs and symptoms
We use the terms signs and symptoms differently. If only you are aware of something, such as a headache, it is a symptom. If you don’t tell your doctor, family member, or friend about your headache, they will not be aware of it. A sign, on the other hand, can be sensed or detected by the patient and other people. A rash, for example, is a sign.
The main symptom of tinnitus is hearing ringing, buzzing, throbbing, whooshing, humming, or hissing sounds in your ears when there is no external source, i.e., there are no such sounds outside your head.
These sounds may come and go or be there all the time. They may also change in volume and pitch.
Some patients find it hard to properly hear other sounds, concentrate, or sleep.
“Tinnitus is often called ringing in the ears. It may also sound like blowing, roaring, buzzing, hissing, humming, whistling, or sizzling. The noises heard can be soft or loud. The person may even think they’re hearing air escaping, water running, the inside of a seashell, or musical notes.”
Diagnosis of tinnitus
If you are experiencing ringing in the ears, you should talk to your doctor, either your GP (general practitioner, family doctor), an audiologist, or an ENT specialist. ENT stands for ear, nose, and throat.
The healthcare professional will perform a physical examination, and ask about your symptoms, medical history, job, and whether you currently have an illness or condition. They may also ask whether you have been exposed to loud noises.
They will probably recommend some hearing tests to determine how severe your tinnitus is and whether there are any related hearing problems.
Other tests may include a head CT scan, a head MRI scan, and an angiography (blood vessel study).
“Your doctor may ask you to move your eyes, clench your jaw, or move your neck, arms, and legs. If your tinnitus changes or worsens, it may help identify an underlying disorder or other medical causes that need treatment.”
As no universal cure for tinnitus exists, the focus here is on helping the patient manage their symptoms. Here are the most common treatment options:
- Treating the underlying cause
Addressing the root cause, like earwax buildup or an ear infection may help improve symptoms.
- Sound therapy
External sounds such as white noise may help mask the symptoms of ringing in the ears. You can use your smartphone to stream or download a wide choice of white noise options.
- Psychological therapy and counseling
CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy), for example, can help patients learn to live with or cope with the condition and minimize its negative impact on their life.
Antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs may help patients manage the psychological and emotional effects of tinnitus.
- Relaxation techniques
Many patients have commented that deep breathing, yoga, meditation, and other relaxation techniques helped reduce stress and anxiety.
Here are some complications associated with tinnitus:
- Hard to concentrate or focus
It is not easy to focus when there is constant ringing, buzzing, or hissing in your ears. Especially if the volume and pitch of the noise change. This may affect some patients’ work or academic performance.
- Sleep problems
Patients may find it hard to fall asleep, stay asleep, or both. This might cause them to be tired and sleepy during the day.
- Emotional problems
Living with tinnitus can be frustrating, annoying, and stressful. It could lead to feelings of anxiety and depression.
Some causes, such as injuries or ear infections, are not possible to prevent. However, there is a lot we can do to protect our ears from too much noise.
Wear earmuffs or earplugs when you are exposed to loud noises, such as a concert or machinery. When wearing headphones or earbuds, keep the volume down.
If you want to clean your ears, do not use cotton swabs (cotton buds) or other objects that can push ear wax deep into your ear canal.
The Mayo Clinic advises limiting alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine intake. These substances may affect blood flow and contribute to ringing in the ears. You should also take care of your cardiovascular health by maintaining an ideal body weight, eating healthily, and exercising regularly.
If you are hearing annoying noises that should not be there, talk to your doctor.