According to the old saying, “if your ears are burning, then someone, somewhere, must be talking about you”. I don’t know if this funny notion has ever been proven, but if you regularly experience ringing or noise in your ears, it’s no laughing matter.
The sensation you’re feeling is most likely tinnitus, a common condition effecting 1 in 5 people. Though not usually serious, tinnitus can be a nuisance. Luckily, there are ways to treat the tinnitus.
Tinnitus and Its Underlying Causes
Tinnitus is not actually a separate condition of its own. Rather, it is a symptom of another problem, like age-related hearing loss known as presbycusis, injury, or a circulatory disorder. If you have tinnitus, you will hear “phantom” sounds, which may include ringing, clicking, buzzing or roaring. The noises may be low or high pitched, they may be present in one or both ears and they may be ever-present or come and go.
Of the two types, subjective tinnitus is the most common and means only you can hear noises in your ears when none exist. It is usually caused by problems with the auditory nerve or the part of your brain that interprets sound. The rarer form is objective tinnitus, where your doctor will be able to hear noises in your ear too. This may be caused by a problem with your blood vessels, muscles or inner ear bones.
Besides the gradual hearing loss that comes with age, other causes of tinnitus are exposure to loud noise, problems with the inner ear bones, and blockage from earwax. Less common causes are stress, head and neck injuries, Meniere’s Disease (an inner ear disorder), and acoustic neuroma (a benign tumor). Other underlying causes exist, but they are rare. Finally, medication can lead to tinnitus. Some common culprits are certain antibiotics, cancer medications, diuretics, and high doses of aspirin (about 12 pills per day).
Treating Tinnitus Naturally
In many cases, the underlying cause of tinnitus is treatable. For example, your doctor may need to remove earwax build-up, alter your medication or treat blood vessel problems through medication or surgery. Depending on the disease which resulted in tinnitus as a symptom, your doctor can devise a treatment plan to reduce or cure the tinnitus, so getting a diagnosis is important.
In some cases, tinnitus may be caused by a chronic condition or aging, so managing the symptoms is the focus. Various devices can mask or suppress the phantom noise in some patients. A white noise machine can help you sleep by creating calming ambient sound. Hearing aids are often helpful for people with tinnitus accompanied by hearing loss. Masking devices look like hearing aids, but produces consistent white noise to distract you from the phantom noises.
There are also several easy ways to make tinnitus symptoms less irritating. Reduce your exposure to loud noises as much as possible, reduce stress through relaxation, meditation or exercise, and reduce consumption of alcohol, which irritates the inner ear by increasing the force of blood flow. Nicotine is also a known irritant for tinnitus sufferers, so do not smoke and avoid exposure to secondhand smoke as well. You can also reduce head congestion, which may aggravate tinnitus, by propping your head up on two pillows when you sleep.
Some alternative medicine remedies have been explored for treating tinnitus. Acupuncture may relieve the noise for some people. Natural herbal supplements that contain gingko biloba and zinc may also be helpful.
Even if you already suffer from tinnitus, it is still important to protect your hearing by avoiding loud noises and eating right and exercising to maintain healthy blood vessels. You may feel isolated if you suffer from hearing problems like tinnitus, but finding ways to cope and manage the symptoms will improve your outlook tremendously. If tinnitus is disturbing your daily life, see your doctor for a diagnosis and a plan to start feeling better soon.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.