If you’ve ever thought, “Why do I hear ringing in my ears?” you may wonder what is causing it and how to treat it.
Kirsten Biernat, AuD, works in audiology at Mercy Health — Anderson Audiology. She sees patients with a full range of hearing loss issues due to age, genetic factors, noise-induced and those caused by drugs or chemicals.
Ear ringing, or tinnitus, is the sensation of sound when no external sound is present. This high-pitched sound is something only you can hear. In rare cases, the sound can even rhythmically pulsate, called pulsatile tinnitus. Most often caused by fluid accumulation or an ear infection in the middle ear, many people say it is like sound waves, with ups and downs of whooshing or throbbing in one or both ears.
Kirsten shares, “Humming, static, buzzing or ringing in the ears is often related to hearing damage. Our team of audiologists would first perform a hearing test on a patient. This sometimes could include additional exams with our ENT providers.”
However, there are many causes of tinnitus. “Most common is that there is damage to the inner ear from noise, age and even medications or drugs,” Kirsten shares. “Too much earwax, infections or fluid behind the eardrum can also contribute to tinnitus.”
Kirsten adds, “The good news is that there is a lot of research around what is causing tinnitus. One way to look at it is a change in how the brain works. This loss of hearing is similar to the way the body processes a missing leg, and the person experiences phantom limb pain. Basically, the brain loses hearing for specific frequencies and tries to fill in the missing gaps.”
Temporary tinnitus can be caused by short-term exposure to loud music, such as a concert, without hearing protection. Usually, this improves over several days but can occasionally take weeks to resolve. However, more permanent tinnitus can be considered an age-related hearing loss, or it can occur with repeated exposure to damaging noise over time. Typically, this happens to people in noise-heavy environments, like factories with loud machinery, construction sites or in military veterans with exposure to artillery or jet engines. Tinnitus can also be a side effect of taking certain medications, especially in high doses.
For those that find tinnitus intrusive or bothersome, quality of life can be affected.
For example, sleep quality can be compromised as tinnitus can prevent falling asleep. Trying to follow a conversation is another difficulty. As with many medical conditions, prevention is the first step in avoiding tinnitus.
To protect your hearing and reduce the risk of tinnitus in the future, you should wear hearing protection in noisy environments. “I always recommend people protect their ears around loud noise, such as operating heavy machinery (including mowing the yard), at shooting ranges and during concerts,” Kirsten shares.
Costs can vary significantly depending on what type of hearing protection you choose. Basic foam earplugs can be less than a dollar. On the higher end, earplugs with noise-filtering functions can range from $20 to more than $200 for custom-made designs.
Choosing the correct treatment for tinnitus depends on several factors, such as how much the tinnitus is affecting you and the primary cause of tinnitus.
“The good news is that if you develop tinnitus from hearing loss, correction of that loss with a hearing aid or surgery can help,” Kirsten says. “However, if it is associated with a balance disorder, we need to look at an appropriate therapy to treat it. It also depends on what level of tinnitus you have – if it is mild or only bothersome in quiet environments, we may not suggest hearing aids and instead suggest noise suppression techniques. These include white noise machines, turning on a fan or playing music at a low volume to mask the tinnitus. More intrusive and severe cases may need counseling, therapy and developing coping strategies.”
If you are experiencing symptoms of tinnitus, we recommend calling and scheduling an appointment with one of our audiologists for a hearing test, followed by an evaluation by one of our physicians to check for conditions such as fluid behind the ear, impacted wax or a vascular issue that may be the underlying cause.
“For my patients, I perform a comprehensive hearing test and may augment this with further procedures such as tympanometry or acoustic reflex thresholds,” Kirsten explains. “We then discuss the findings, outline the most likely diagnoses and discuss any further studies/steps needed such as imaging or balance testing, treatment, amplification and follow up.”
Learn more about the ear, nose and throat services we offer at Mercy Health.