Why Are My Ears Ringing? Tinnitus Explained

Why Are My Ears Ringing? Tinnitus Explained

If you're reading this article, it's likely that you've experienced this at some point in your life: those temporary seemingly phantom sounds like a ringing in the ear, especially after hearing a loud noise, attending a loud event or even when sitting alone in a completely quite space or room. Sometimes the noise you hear is fleeting, but for some it's constant and becomes a real annoyance. If this ringing occurs for prolonged periods of time, specifically for more than six months, it is then called chronic tinnitus.

You might be shocked to know that at least 7 million Americans experience tinnitus so severely that it interferes with their life on a daily basis. It's undoubtedly frustrating to live with tinnitus, so understanding its causes is imperative to ensure that we spread tinnitus awareness and reduce the number of those affected by this plight.

What’s That Ringing Sound?

“Tinnitus is a perception of sound in the absence of an external sound source,” explains Amy Sarow, Au.D., an audiologist in Southfield, Michigan, and Forbes Health advisory member. While most people consider and describe tinnitus to be a "ringing" in their ears, the condition can also be felt and heard as a buzzing, humming, chirping, hissing, roaring, crickets or even music, says Dr. Sarow.

The experience varies from person to person, not just in the kind of sound that is heard, but also with regards to its frequency, volume and persistency. Rather than being a disease itself, tinnitus is considered to be a symptom of other issues, most notably hearing loss and hearing damage.

According to Dr. Sarow, 80 to 90% of those with tinnitus also have some level of hearing loss. “Chronic tinnitus becomes more prevalent with age but can start at any time during a person’s life,” says Christopher Spankovich, Au.D., a professor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center School of Medicine in the Department of Otolaryngology.

What Causes Ringing in the Ears?

“If the normal sound input is reduced enough, central portions of the [auditory] pathway change to compensate. We call this neural plasticity,” says Dr. Spankovich. Essentially, science tells us that when hair cells in your inner ear are damaged, this causes hearing sensitivity to be reduced, causing the brain's neural circuits to try to adapt by increasing your ear’s sensitivity to sound.

While neural plasticity usually allows the brain to develop your cognitive, sensory and motor functions from infancy throughout life, when input from the cochlea—a part of the inner ear crucial to the hearing process —is reduced, it triggers a neuroplastic response that can cause phantom sounds like ringing in your ears.

“The brain is accustomed to most ‘true sounds’ having an identifiable external source. When this relationship is absent, the brain has difficulty resolving the nature of the sound-like perception,” says Dr. Spankovich. “This can cause the brain to attend to the signal and result in distress.”

While hearing loss is a common cause of tinnitus in adults, other risk factors include: Head or neck injuries Medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, certain antibiotics, cancer drugs, diuretics, antimalarial drugs and antidepressants Stiffening of bones in the middle ear Allergies Ear infection Earl canal blockage, such as wax buildup High or low blood pressure Tumors Diabetes Thyroid conditions, such as hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, and autoimmune thyroiditis Head or neck injury or jaw misalignment

Tinnitus Prevention

As you may have guessed from the other common causes of tinnitus listed above, there is no foolproof and definite way to prevent tinnitus. Simply put, some of the factors that contribute to tinnitus development are beyond a person's control, and can include genetics and aging.

It is however widely agreed in scientific circles that there is one known, true and tested, way to prevent tinnitus: avoiding uncomfortable loud environments can lower the risk of developing tinnitus, as a vast majority of those who develop the symptom do so following excessive noise exposure.

If you can’t avoid being present in noisy environments, wearing protective hearing gear like DownBeats earplugs can be beneficial. Further, there are many people who develop hearing loss and tinnitus as a result of playing music at excessively loud volume while using headphones or earphones.

While it seems counterintuitive, especially as early onset of hearing loss develops, it's important to keep volume lower than you think when listening to music using private listening devices.  

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