Dear Doctors: I am a woman in my 80’s and in very good health. But now the ringing in my ears drives me crazy. I’ve tried drugstore pills, eye drops, and sound machines, but nothing worked. I would appreciate it if you could explain this ordeal and make suggestions.
answer: I explained tinnitus. It is defined as a perceived sound that does not originate from an external source.
Tinnitus is not a disease per se, but a symptom of some other underlying problem.
The sounds that people with tinnitus hear occur because something going on inside their bodies begins to affect the complex machinery that enables us to hear.
Ongoing tinnitus affects an estimated 15% of the US population. Many more people report episodic episodes, often due to exposure to loud noises or blows to the head.
The most common sound associated with tinnitus is ringing. People also report hissing, buzzing, whistling, chirping, whistling, and roaring sounds.
Potential physical causes include high blood pressure, earwax build-up, side effects of drugs such as some antibiotics, antidepressants, cancer drugs, and high doses of aspirin.
However, the main causes of tinnitus are exposure to loud or sustained noise and hearing loss. These can damage the cochlea, the part of the inner ear that converts sound vibrations into nerve impulses. Information collected by the cochlea is transmitted to the brain’s auditory cortex, where nerve impulses are interpreted as sound.
Tinnitus can affect one or both ears and can range from forgetful background noises to loud, sustained sounds.
Unfortunately, there is no single cure.
To identify potential physical causes, it is recommended to see an ear specialist – an otolaryngologist. These causes are often treatable. Your doctor can also make sure your blood pressure is under control.
A hearing professional can also help you consider noise reduction techniques such as using ear masking devices. If hearing loss is the cause, hearing aids help by amplifying external sounds that are often louder than the internal tinnitus.
Tinnitus can be frustrating. However, by working with a professional, you may be able to find a variety of techniques that can ease your symptoms.
Dr. Eve Glazier and Dr. Elizabeth Ko are physicians at UCLA Health.