Employee & Community Health

'My ears are ringing'

11/8/2018 by Dr. Denise Dupras

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Tinnitus, or hearing "ringing" in your ears, is a common problem affecting one in five people. You also may experience buzzing, hissing, clicking or even a roaring sensation when there are sounds no one else can hear. 

What are the causes?

Tinnitus is not a disease, but a symptom caused by another condition. The most common cause is inner-ear damage to delicate hairs that transmit sound waves to your brain. Other common causes include age-related hearing loss, exposure to loud noise, earwax in your outer ear canal, and changes in the bones in your middle ear that transmit sounds. 

Less-common causes include problems related to blood vessels, head and neck injuries, jaw bone (temporomandibular joint) disorders, acoustic neuroma (benign tumors on the cranial nerve) and Meniere's disease, which is often associated with severe dizziness. Even medications can cause tinnitus or worsen your symptoms. 

Should you worry?

It depends. If it occurs suddenly, or you have dizziness or hearing loss associated with the noise, then you should see a doctor. Evaluation and treatment depend on the cause of tinnitus. 

Tinnitus can't be cured, but it can be managed. This may involve removing excess earwax, treating an underlying vascular condition, changing medications, using white or masking noise, or being properly fitted with hearing aids. Sometimes tinnitus can be reduced if you hear sound better. Exercise and relaxation techniques also may help, since tinnitus can worsen with stress. 

Several promising therapies include music therapy, training your brain to ignore the sound, and cognitive behavioral therapy that focuses on replacing negative thoughts with positive ones to change your reaction to tinnitus. 

How to prevent it

Most importantly, you can take actions to prevent tinnitus. 

  • Wear ear protection when around loud machines, firearms, chain saws, etc. 
  • Turn down the volume when listening to music. 
  • Take care of your heart and blood vessels. That means exercising and maintaining a normal blood pressure. 

Dr. Denise Dupras is a general internist in Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Division of Community Internal Medicine (CIM). She completed her MD-PhD at Mayo Medical School and her residency in Internal Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Her interests include medical education and evidence-based medicine.