Dear Doctors: I am a woman in my 80s and have been in pretty good health. However, I now have ringing in my ears that drives me crazy. I’ve tried drugstore pills and drops and a sound machine, but nothing works. I am hoping you can explain this ordeal and offer suggestions.
Answer: You have described tinnitus. It’s defined as a perceived sound that doesn’t arise from an external source.
Tinnitus isn’t a condition in itself but a symptom of some other underlying problem.
The sounds someone with tinnitus hears occur because something taking place within the body has begun to affect the complex apparatus that allows us to hear.
Ongoing tinnitus affects an estimated 15% of the U.S. population. Many more people report temporary episodes, often due to exposure to a loud noise or a blow to the head.
The most common sound associated with tinnitus is ringing. People also report hissing, buzzing, whistling, chirping, whirring and roaring.
Potential physical causes include high blood pressure, earwax buildup and a side effect of medications including some antibiotics, antidepressants and cancer drugs, as well as large doses of aspirin.
But the major causes of tinnitus are exposure to loud or persistent noise and hearing loss. These can result in damage to the part of the inner ear, the cochlea, that translates the vibrations from sounds into nerve impulses. The information gathered by the cochlea is sent to the brain’s auditory cortices, where the nerve impulses are interpreted as sound.
Tinnitus can affect one or both ears and can range from a forgettable background noise to loud and persistent sounds.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a single treatment.
We recommend you see an ear specialist — an otolaryngologist — to identify potential physical causes, which often are treatable. The doctor also can make sure your blood pressure is under control.
Also, a hearing specialist can help you explore noise-suppression techniques such as the use of a masking device in the ears. When hearing loss is a factor, hearing aids can help by amplifying external sounds, which often are louder than the inner sounds of tinnitus.
Tinnitus can be maddening. But, by working with a specialist, you might be able to arrive at a combination of techniques that will offer relief.
Dr. Eve Glazier and Dr. Elizabeth Ko are UCLA Health internists.