If you hear ringing, clicking, popping, buzzing, roaring, whistling, or hissing that other
people around you don't hear, you may think you're going crazy. But you probably have a condition
called tinnitus (pronounced TIN-i-tus or tin-NIGHT-us), which affects an estimated 30 to 50 million Americans.
The word comes from the Latin tinnire, which means "to tinkle or ring like a bell." Some people hear
continual ringing; for others, the ringing may go away for hours or days, but then return. The sounds
may be high or low in pitch, in one or both ears. Most people with tinnitus learn to ignore it,
but others may have trouble working, sleeping, and enjoying normal activities.
Tinnitus is not a disease but a symptom of some quirk in the ear, auditory nerve
(which transmits sound signals), or brain. It often occurs along with hearing loss
(both age-related and from repeated exposure to loud noises).
It may also be triggered or worsened by other conditions, including otosclerosis
(hardening of the middle and inner ear bones), Meniere's disease (a disease of the inner ear),
ear wax buildup, infections, hypertension, diabetes, head and neck injuries,
medications (for example, aspirin and certain beta-blockers, antidepressants,
and antibiotics), and emotional stress.
If you think you have tinnitus, see your doctor. You may be referred to an ear, nose, and throat specialist
(an otolaryngologist) and an audiologist who will check your hearing.
Sometimes, the ringing can be silenced by treating an underlying condition - for example,
by curing an ear infection, removing ear wax, or switching medications.
But in most cases, the best you can do is try to make the sounds less noticeable and leam to cope.
Here are ways to manage tinnitus. Some may work better for you than others.
By the way: Ginkgo biloba, B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, magnets, hypnosis, and acupuncture are just some
of the many unproven remedies that have been suggested for tinnitus.
- Mask the noise by increasing background sounds, which are easier to ignore -
for instance, turn on the radio, a television, or a fan. For tinnitus that keeps you awake,
use a bedside audio unit or sound machine. The Sound Pillow (from Phoenix Productions in
San Antonio) has speakers buried inside that can be plugged into an outside audio source.
- In-ear masking devices produce "white noise" that can reduce or eliminate the perception of tinnitus.
Even after the device is removed, the effect may last hours or even a few days.
- Tinnitus retraining therapy uses an ear device that emits low-volume noise but doesn't completely mask the tinnitus.
This is combined with counseling. Gradually, you get used to the tinnitus until
you are no longer aware of it. But it can take up to two years for complete
success and is costly (and not usually covered by insurance).
- If you also have hearing loss, a hearing aid may help increase the sounds you should hear
and drown out those you shouldn't. Some hearing aids also have sound generators built in.
Cochlear implants may be recommended for severe hearing loss.
- Stress can set off tinnitus, and tinnitus, in turn, certainly increases stress.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps alter negative thoughts and behaviors;
biofeedback helps control physical reactions to stress.
- There are no medications approved by the FDA for tinnitus, but anti-anxiety drugs,
tricyclic antidepressants, and other medications sometimes help.
- Some people find they are helped by reducing sodium, caffeine, or alcohol, or by regular exercise.
These steps can't hurt.
- Don't smoke.
- To prevent tinnitus or keep it from getting worse, avoid exposure to loud noises as much as possible.
Wear hearing protection (earplugs or ear muffs) at sporting events and loud concerts and
while blow-drying your hair, mowing the lawn, and using power tools. If you use headphones,
don't blast the volume or wear them for long periods of time.