Ringing in the Ears: Tinnitus and Its Meaning
What's That Noise I Keep Hearing?
Many people, especially as they age, become bothered by an odd noise that only they can hear. It may sound like a ringing, buzzing, humming, or hissing. The medical term for this is "tinnitus."
I began having this problem myself some years back. The doctor sort of shrugged and said something on the order of "Yes, that happens sometimes." It was basically a brush-off, so I set out to research the condition for myself.
Hearing a noise that is not there can be unsettling. Until you figure out what it is, you might even think you're losing your mind, as you ask your partner, "What's that noise?" In reply, they look at you strangely and say, "What noise? I don't hear anything."
Medically, it is not dangerous; merely annoying. It can sometimes be a symptom of an underlying problem, but that is less common. Approximately one in five people experience tinnitus at some point in their lives. It can be temporary or permanent.
Note: There are two accepted pronunciations for tinnitus. It can be either "tuh-NITE-us" or "TIN-it-us." Both are accepted in the dictionary.
What Causes Tinnitus?
As you may recall from your high school biology or physiology classes, the ear is made up of three parts:
- The outer ear, or ear canal, ending at the eardrum
- The middle ear, containing the bones that transmit the sound waves from the eardrum
- The inner ear, a fluid-filled space containing tiny hairs that vibrate and send the message along the otic nerve to the brain, producing all the sounds we hear
When the tiny hairs within the inner ear become bent, broken or otherwise damaged, usually by repeated exposure to loud noise with no ear protection, it is as if they are permanently sending a signal of that frequency to the brain. Hence, it truly is "all in your head," and explains why no one else can hear "that funny noise."
Sometimes the cause is physical damage to the ear from an injury; sometimes it can be a symptom of something else, such as a blood pressure issue. There can be other causes, ranging from types of tumors in the area to stress or long-term exposure to loud noises.
Appliance or Tool
snow blower, hair dryer
busy city traffic
food processor, belt sander
inside subway car
leaf blower, chainsaw
What Can Be Done?
Unfortunately, there is no real cure. There is not a lot that can be done to reverse the condition unless it has been determined that the cause is physical.
Therefore, when you first notice you are having this problem, it is best to see your doctor and have it checked out.
If the doctor finds you have high blood pressure, he or she can put you on appropriate medication, or lifestyle modification to treat that underlying problem.
There can be other, more serious causes, but they occur much more rarely. This is why you need to see the doctor—to rule out those possibilities.
What Does It Sound Like?
It is different for nearly every sufferer.
I first experienced it as a low, two-toned (diatonic) humming, almost like a distant electric motor constantly running and changing pitch. Fortunately, it is not loud, and does not interfere with my daily life. That pitch has changed, however, and these days, it sounds more like this, but at a lower volume.
Many suffers are not so lucky. For them, it is a loud enough sound to bother them even when there is other noise and conversation happening. Still others experience the volume at a high enough level to truly interfere with their lives, up to and including making it hard to hear people speaking.
From the same site I used in the example above,you can hear an example of how it might sound to a person who is bothered even when other sounds are present. That is just one page of a single instance. The main site of Hear-It.org has a list of sound files you can experiment with.
The site also gives a full medical description of the physiology of the problem. There are several pages, and the site also discusses hearing loss, stating that if you have tinnitus, you have some degree of hearing loss.
How Do You Manage Tinnitus?
Most of the time during the day, it does not bother me--there is enough other background noise to mask the inner disturbance. The old, "I can't hear you when the water's running!" effect.
However, at night, trying to get to sleep when the world has gone quiet, it's quite another matter. It's as if the volume has been turned up, and it does cause me trouble trying to settle down and fall asleep.
My management choice is a sound generator, much like the one below. It's no larger than a clock-radio. I can set it for any of several nature sounds, such as ocean surf; rainstorm, running brook, etc., that are peaceful, relaxing sounds. I do not hear the tinnitus above these more pleasant sounds, so I can fall asleep in peace.
Once you have the device, this solution is essentially free, as they don't consume more than pennies worth of electricity. Many such soothing sounds are now available as apps for smart phones or tablets.
White Noise Machines May Help
This is a virtual twin to the device I use. I've had the problem for long enough that I've gone through two of these until they quit working! But they do help a lot with masking the noise.
Don't Get Drastic!
For each person, the choice of how to deal with this annoying malfunction of the body will differ, as the way the condition manifests will also differ from person to person.
Do not opt for a drastic solution! People have been known to go through horrible operations, deliberately rendering themselves deaf, all to no avail, because the sound is not arriving via your ear canal and hitting your eardrum; it's "all in your head," remember?
For the same reason, trying to block the sound by hiding under a pillow is also ineffective.
A Frustrating Conclusion
After all is said and done, this is one of those unhappy endings where after all the explanations, the final conclusion is that there is really not much that can be done about the matter.
It's a "learn to live with it" scenario. I hope at least to have provided some useful insight into the why's and wherefore's of this aggravating condition, and offered some recourse for dealing with it so that it is not interfering with living your life.
Update: April 2017
I have just read a page from the National Institutes of Health about ongoing research on this problem. There are many new interesting avenues being explored. While there is still no cure, there is a body of medical professionals looking into the matter more closely than in the past.
And another interesting tidbit I came across: yes, deaf people can suffer from tinnitus. That's because it's not an actual sound, but just the sensation of a sound caused by various nerve interactions in the brain. They may actually feel it as a vibration, rather than a sound.
Yet another article describes a new experiment using stimulation of the vagus nerve to teach the brain to rewire itself to eliminate the noise. Hope is on the horizon!
An excellent reference with information for everyone from parents to teachers to doctors, is found at Noisy Planet, sponsored by the National Institute of Health's National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders division.
Always Check With Your Doctor
This article is based upon my own research, as well as my personal experience with this problem. I am not a doctor or medical professional.
The information in this article is not intended as a substitute for proper medical care and consultation. Some causes of this problem could be serious, and you should always consult your doctor regarding any health issue.
What's Your Experience?
Have you ever been troubled with Tinnitus?
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Liz Elias