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Tinnitus: What is that Annoying Ringing in My Ears?

Tinnitus is an unwelcome intruder that can disrupt your day with a continuous, high-pitched ringing in your ears. This is not just annoying; phantom sounds can interfere with your concentration, sleep patterns, and overall quality of life.

Visual insights into the causes and information on managing tinnitus symptoms.

Tinnitus is not an external sound, but rather an internal perception created by the brain. It can manifest as ringing, buzzing, hissing, or even musical tones. While it primarily affects the auditory system, tinnitus can arise from various causes elsewhere in the body, making each case unique.

The name of the condition, tinnitus, comes from the Latin tinnire, ‘to ring’. And indeed, ringing is how many people describe this persistent and annoying sound in one or both of their ears. In most cases—up to 95% of the time—tinnitus is subjective, meaning that there is no tangible cause for the sound. It is a sound perceived by the brain that doesn’t seem to have any way of manifesting.


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What causes ringing in the ears?

Tinnitus is often caused by damage to the stereocilia, tiny hair-like protrusions from the sensory cells of your inner ear. These tiny hairs normally help transmit sound signals to your brain, allowing you to hear the noises around you. They are also necessary for balance.

When these cells get damaged or don’t work properly, they can start sending random signals that your brain interprets as sound, even though there isn’t any real sound happening. It’s basically a trick played by your ears—an auditory illusion.

Common factors contributing to tinnitus include:

  • exposure to loud and sudden noises 
  • age-related hearing loss
  • earwax build-up (yep, even that)
  • trauma to the head and neck
  • TMJ disorders
  • certain medications
  • use of alcohol, tobacco, and various stimulants
  • circulatory disorders in the ear or elsewhere in the body
  • Meniere’s disease

If going to rock concerts and prolonged exposure to loud machinery in specific professions used to be the main suspects for tinnitus-related issues, nowadays everything seems to be getting louder. Even a regular concert or a movie at the theatre can easily exceed safe decibel levels.

This is not to say that only loud noises cause tinnitus. For those of us prone to tinnitus, the use of stimulants, even coffee, can exacerbate the condition.

Tinnitus can be temporary, for instance when you’ve been to a loud concert and your ears need a break but return to normal the next day. Sometimes, however, it can stick around for a long time, and that can be quite bothersome.

In those cases, it's always a good idea to seek medical advice and have your ears checked by an ear specialist (otolaryngologist) to see if there's an underlying cause and if there are any treatment options available.

Symptoms of ringing ears

Tinnitus is a condition that can include a variety of different symptoms.

People who suffer from tinnitus perceive a persistent sound in their ears or head. This sound can take different forms like ringing, buzzing, hissing, or even roaring. The key thing is that these sounds are perceived without any external source. Think of, for example, putting a conch shell to your ear and “hearing the ocean”, except, there is not even a shell or any real external pressure to your ear, it is all happening inside.

Illustrating common signs and manifestations associated with tinnitus and ear-related issues

Sometimes the sound seems to be pulsating, even occurring in rhythm with your heartbeat. This is known as pulsatile tinnitus.

Many tinnitus sufferers notice difficulty concentrating or sleeping because of the persistent noise. This can be especially distressing when the condition becomes chronic, and you can’t get relief from the incessant phantom sounds. This can significantly interfere with your daily activities. 

The emotional effects of tinnitus should not be brushed aside too lightly, as they can seriously impact a person’s quality of life.

We all know how annoying it can be to deal with a persistent sound such as an insect buzzing by your bedside. Dealing with a sound that only you can hear for hours, days, or even years on end can be truly terrible, even if it doesn’t directly affect your physical health.

Meniere’s disease

Meniere’s disease is an episodic condition that affects the inner ear and causes vertigo or a spinning sensation. Tinnitus and hearing loss are common symptoms of Meniere’s disease. While the condition usually affects only one ear, it is chronic and has no known cure. A reduced salt diet can help reduce excess fluid in the inner ear.

If your tinnitus is accompanied by vertigo, hearing loss, or the feeling that your ear is plugged, and these feelings happen episodically with no symptoms in between attacks, you may have Meniere’s disease. See you doctor for diagnosis.


How can I quickly reduce tinnitus?

Sadly, there is no quick fix, even for garden variety tinnitus. However, there are steps you can take to reduce the effects of this unpleasant ear noise.

  • Remove earwax.

Start with examining your ears and – safely – removing ear wax buildup. Do not insert a cotton swab or anything else into your ear canal. This was once a common practice, but it has been shown to do more harm than good. Instead, see if your local pharmacy carries some type of earwax removal drops. This is a medication that gently breaks up the earwax so it can be easily removed, either by letting the ear drain or by using a syringe. Sometimes, gently rinsing the ears with a little warm water from a bulb syringe can help; this method is generally safe but should never be used if your eardrums have been damaged. If you aren’t sure, visit a specialist.

  • Use white noise or other types sound-masking.

White noise can be beneficial for overcoming tinnitus, as it helps mask and/or reduce the perception of the ringing in your ears.

White noise contains all audible frequencies with equal intensity. Other gentle background or ambient noise such as rain sounds, ocean waves, or simply a fan can distract your perception from the tinnitus sounds to provide temporary relief.

White noise can be especially beneficial when you are relaxing or getting ready to go to bed, because tinnitus generally becomes most noticeable during the quieter times of the day. Some people find that white noise machines help them sleep.

White noise does not work for everyone, but some people find it significantly helps them adapt to and even overcome the effects of tinnitus.

  • Use a hearing aid.

Hearing aids can also help reduce the symptoms of tinnitus and are often prescribed for older individuals specifically to deal with this problem.

A hearing aid amplifies the frequencies a person struggles to hear. When these sounds become clearer, there is less room for the brain to “fill in” what it isn’t hearing. Hearing aids work particularly well when hearing loss and tinnitus occur on the same frequency.

Can tinnitus go away with exercise?

Tinnitus is linked with overall health and stress levels. Regular exercise and an active daily life can help with many of the indirect underlying causes of tinnitus, such as poor sleep quality, stress and anxiety, and blood circulation issues.

This is nothing new—moderate exercise is important for all of us and truly helps your body stay healthy (annoying as this may be).

A mix of exercises that strengthen and condition your body and exercises that relax and gently stretch the muscles is optimum. If you suffer from TMJ or a similar condition, stretching and strengthening exercises for your neck and shoulders can help.

Which therapy is best for tinnitus?

Several therapies have been developed for tinnitus management. These include:

  • Acoustic therapy
  • Tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT)
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

Acoustic therapy, or sound therapy, uses masking techniques to distract your ears and give you a break from the sound and habituation techniques and retrain your auditory perception and emotional reaction to it.

Tinnitus retraining therapy uses sound therapy plus coaching to retrain the auditory, limbic, and autonomic nervous systems. Over the course of at least 12 months, you will learn to recalibrate the systems producing your phantom sounds. It is a significant investment of time, but this therapy claims to have an 80% success rate. TRT is also used to treat hyperacusis and decreased sound tolerance.

Cognitive behavioural therapy also has a good track record for dealing with tinnitus. CBT is a powerful method that helps you reset your behavioural and emotional response to reduce the effects of tinnitus and other stressors on a day-to-day basis.

Tinnitus is strongly linked with stress. If you aren’t ready to invest time in a target therapy, try a stress-reduction technique, such as yoga or meditation, and use a sound-masking device, it can give your ears a break.

Don’t be afraid to mention your tinnitus to your doctor and look for solutions. Sometimes ringing in the ears naturally disappears after a while, but sometimes a deeper underlying cause must be addressed before you can get relief. And sometimes the best you can do is develop a management strategy that works for you.  Everyone deserves help.

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