Tinnitus Steals the Sound of
Jonathan Cryer, M.D.
If you are bothered by a
high-pitched sound, buzzing, or shushing in one or both ears, you may have a
condition called tinnitus, which effects a majority of
the population at some point in their lives.
other people hear the annoying sounds I’m hearing?
In most instances, other people
cannot hear those annoying sounds. There are two types
of tinnitus, subjective and objective. Subjective tinnitus, which is the most
common type, describes sounds that only the person with the condition can hear.
Objective tinnitus produces sounds that your doctor can detect during an
examination and may have any number of causes, from vascular malformations in
the head to a bug trapped in the ear.
causes subjective tinnitus?
The most common cause of
tinnitus is hearing loss associated either with advancing age or exposure to
loud noise. It’s not uncommon for people who are annoyed by the sound in their
ears to be unaware of their hearing loss: they first learn about it during
evaluation and testing.
Another common cause of
tinnitus is medication. People using nonsteroidal
anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen or aspirin often experience
ringing in their ears.
should I do if I have ringing or other noise in my ears?
If you have either intermittent
or constant ringing in one or both ears, it’s a good idea to mention it to your
doctor. While these noises are usually benign, your doctor may send you to an
ear, nose, and throat specialist (otorhinolaryngologist)
for further evaluation. Tinnitus does
not often represent a serious medical problem; however, it can be a tremendous
nuisance. Depending on the individual involved, tinnitus can have a significant
impact on quality of life.
happens during the evaluation?
The doctor will take your medical history and give you a
physical examination, which may include a neurological evaluation and an
audiogram (hearing test). If the history and physical uncover anything other
than common tinnitus, the doctor may suggest some blood tests and an MRI to
survey the brain and inner ear. In reading the MRI, the doctor will pay
particular attention to the eighth cranial nerve, which conveys information on
hearing and balance from the inner ear to the brain.
How is tinnitus treated?
There are several treatment options for people with benign
tinnitus. While it is usually difficult to make the noise stop entirely, there
are strategies that can help diminish the impact tinnitus has on a person’s
life. Many people gain relief by simply masking the noise to cover up the
tinnitus. Running a radio on low static or turning on a white noise machine at
night can help you get to sleep. Some white noise machines resemble hearing
aids and fit into the ear.
Some people find that biofeedback and habituation techniques
are helpful in managing tinnitus. By working with someone trained in these
techniques, patients can learn to compartmentalize the tinnitus and live with
it more compatibly. For some people, merely learning that the tinnitus is
benign and not something to worry about provides sufficient relief.
I avoid tinnitus?
Long-term use of nonsteroidal
anti-inflammatory pain medications is associated with tinnitus. Let your doctor
know if you are taking this type of pain medication; he or she may be able to
adjust your medicine to reduce or stop the tinnitus.
Tinnitus that accompanies hearing loss is something we can
avoid by avoiding acoustic trauma. If in your professional or recreational life
you are exposed to a lot of noise, take the precaution of wearing ear plugs or
some other type of hearing protection. When you are mowing the lawn,
weed-whacking, skeet shooting, hunting, or riding a motorcycle, protect your
Some people don’t worry about hearing loss because they
don’t understand that losing our hearing is not just about having our internal
volume turned down. Hearing can become very distorted;
sounds and voices can become tinny, unpleasant, and strange. The best
prevention is protection.
Cryer is an otorhinolaryngologist
(a doctor who specializes in ear, nose, and throat). He trained at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, where
he completed medical school, followed by a surgery internship and residency in otorhinolaryngology and head and neck surgery. He serves on
the medical staff of Cayuga
and is in practice at Cayuga Ear, Nose, Throat—Head and Neck Surgery.