Have you ever wondered, why are my ears ringing? If so, you're in good company.
A new study shows that 1 in 10 American adults has tinnitus — a persistent ringing in the ears. The study, from researchers at University of California, Irvine, also found rates of tinnitus were higher among people who were regularly exposed to noisy environments, either at work or during leisure time. More than 21 million people had tinnitus within the last year, researchers estimate. About 27 percent of them had symptoms for more than 15 years, and 36 percent had nearly constant symptoms.
For a lot of people, the unrelenting sounds can become a cause of anguish. Tinnitus can hinder concentration and incite fatigue, depression, anxiety and memory problems. Commonly experienced as a ringing in the ears, it can also come on like roaring, clicking, chirping, hissing or buzzing.
While many believe that tinnitus is a disease in and of itself, it’s not. It’s a symptom that something is askew in the auditory system — a network that includes the ear, the auditory nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain, and the parts of the brain that process sound, explains the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It can come and go, and occasionally improves, but often gets worse. Something as mundane as a clump of earwax blocking the ear canal can cause tinnitus, but it can also come courtesy of a number of other conditions, such as:
Noise-induced hearing loss
Those exposed to regular noise — like factory workers, road crews and musicians — can develop tinnitus over time as the noise damages sensory hair cells in the inner ear. Overexposure to loud sound is the leading cause of tinnitus.
Explosion damage. Being exposed to bomb blasts and similar experiences can initiate tinnitus as the explosion’s shock wave can damage tissue in parts of the brain that process sound. The NIH reports that tinnitus is one of the most common service-related disabilities among veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Medication use. More than 200 drugs come with tinnitus as a potential side effect. Tinnitus is commonly reported as a symptom of heavy aspirin usage, anti-inflammatory pain medication and some antibiotics. It can also be a side effect of some sedatives, antidepressants and quinine drugs, according to WebMD.
Pulsatile tinnitus. This is a rare type of the condition in which the patient hears a rhythmic pulsing in the ear, usually in conjunction with the heartbeat. Most often this is caused by blood flow problems in the head or neck; but may also be a sign of a brain tumor or abnormalities in brain structure.
Other causes include:
- Ear and sinus infections
- Diseases of the heart or blood vessels
- Ménière’s disease, an inner ear disorder
- Brain tumors
- Hormonal changes in women
- Thyroid abnormalities
Where does the noise come from?
You hear the ringing, but there’s obviously nothing humming nearby to cause the sound, so what’s going on? Well, scientists aren’t exactly sure. It has been suggested that tinnitus is the result of the brain’s neural circuits trying to adapt to ear damage by increasing the sensitivity to sound. Others posit that it could be from neural circuits thrown out of whack when damage in the inner ear changes signaling activity in the auditory cortex, the sound-processing part of the brain. Meanwhile, it could be caused by neural circuits interacting abnormally. Until further research is done, we don’t know the exact mechanics of the condition.
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for tinnitus, but there are ways to help people cope with the condition. Following are the basics, and you can check with the American Tinnitus Association for more information.
- Hearing aids
- TMJ Treatment
- Wearable sound generators
- Tabletop sound generators
- Acoustic neural stimulation
- Cochlear implants
- Antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs
- Other medications
Some people find natural relief by using minerals such as magnesium or zinc, herbal preparations such as Ginkgo biloba, homeopathic remedies, or B vitamins. Others recommend procedures like acupuncture, craniosacral therapy, magnets, hyperbaric oxygen, or hypnosis.
Protect your ears. If your work involves chain saws, booming machinery, firearms, or loud musical instruments, make sure to wear over-the-ear hearing protection.
Turn down the music. Listening to amplified music with no ear protection or listening to it loudly though headphones for extended periods can cause hearing loss and tinnitus.
Watch your heart. Exercising, maintaining a healthy diet and taking other steps to keep your cardiovascular system on track can help prevent tinnitus linked to blood vessel disorders.
Consider your coffee habit. Interestingly, while some people blame caffeine for tinnitus, a comprehensive study recently published in the American Journal of Medicine found that women who drank less than 150 milligrams a day of caffeine (roughly 12 ounces of coffee coffee) were 15 percent more likely to develop tinnitus than those who consumed 450 mg to 599 mg a day of caffeine.
More research is needed to confirm whether increasing caffeine intake might improve people’s tinnitus symptoms, but the study could hold promise for those who are haunted by the relentless phantom sounds that can make life a noisy, sometimes maddening, nuisance.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in August 2014.