Question: I’ve begun hearing an annoying buzzing or ringing sound in my ears. What’s going on?
Answer: The fancy name for the sounds you are hearing is tinnitus. Some people pronounce it “TIN-ih-tus” and others “tih-NYE-tus.” Either way is correct. Both are in the dictionary.
Tinnitus is relatively common. At least 17 out of every 100 people around the world have some degree of tinnitus. Here in the United States, the American Tinnitus Association estimates that about 50 million Americans have tinnitus to some degree while about 12 million have tinnitus severely enough that they seek medical advice. About 2 million of these have tinnitus so bad that they cannot function normally.
Your doctor will examine your ears, head and neck to look for possible causes of tinnitus. Tests include:
- Hearing (audiological) exam. As part of the test, you’ll sit in a soundproof room wearing earphones through which will be played specific sounds into one ear at a time. You’ll indicate when you can hear the sound, and your results are compared with results considered normal for your age. This can help rule out or identify possible causes of tinnitus.
- Movement. 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 that needs treatment.
- Imaging tests. Depending on the suspected cause of your tinnitus, you may need imaging tests such as CT or MRI scans.
The sounds you hear can help your doctor identify a possible underlying cause.
- Clicking. Muscle contractions around your ear can cause sharp clicking sounds you hear in bursts. They may last from several seconds to a few minutes.
- Heartbeat. Blood vessel problems, such as high blood pressure, an aneurysm or a tumor can amplify the sound of your heartbeat in your ears (pulsatile tinnitus).
- Low-pitched ringing. Conditions that can cause low-pitched ringing in one ear include Meniere’s disease. Tinnitus may become very loud before a vertigo attack — a sense that you or your surroundings are spinning or moving.
- High-pitched ringing. Exposure to a very loud noise or a blow to the ear can cause a high-pitched ringing or buzzing that usually goes away after a few hours. However, if there’s hearing loss as well, tinnitus may be permanent. Long-term noise exposure, age-related hearing loss or medications can cause a continuous, high-pitched ringing in both ears. Acoustic neuroma can cause continuous, high-pitched ringing in one ear.
- Other sounds. Stiff inner ear bones (otosclerosis) can cause low-pitched tinnitus that may be continuous, or may come and go. Earwax, foreign bodies or hairs in the ear canal can rub against the eardrum, causing a variety of sounds.
In many cases, the cause of tinnitus is never found. Your doctor can discuss with you steps you can take to reduce the severity of your tinnitus or to help you cope better with the noise.
The impact tinnitus has on a person’s life can vary enormously. Obviously there is a major difference between mild or short lasting tinnitus and loud, severe, constant tinnitus day in and day out. Some people learn to completely ignore their tinnitus. The fancy term for this is “habituation.” For many others, tinnitus is only a mild irritation. However, for some, tinnitus is totally debilitating and disrupts their entire life. People with severe tinnitus often have problems sleeping. They may be irritable and cannot concentrate on anything other than their tinnitus. As a result, they are constantly under stress, perform poorly, and lose their joy of living. The great musician, Beethoven, once lamented, “My ears whistle and buzz continually day and night. I can say I am living a wretched life.