News & Events

Ringing In Your Ears?

Karon Lynn, Au.D.

Tinnitus commonly is described as a ringing in the ears, but some people also hear it as a roaring, clicking, hissing or buzzing. It may be soft or loud, and it might affect both ears or only one ear. For some people, it’s a minor annoyance. For others, it can interfere with sleep and grow to be a source of mental and emotional anguish.

Each year, about one in 10 adults nationwide has an episode of tinnitus that lasts longer than three months. Tinnitus isn’t a disease. Instead, it’s a symptom something is wrong with the auditory system. The problem may exist somewhere in the ear, in the nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain or in the parts of the brain that make sense of sounds.

Scientists still aren’t entirely sure what happens in the auditory system to cause tinnitus. But somehow, the networks of nerve cells that process sounds have been thrown out of balance in a way that creates the illusion of sound where there is none. Because tinnitus can arise from so many conditions, ranging from hearing loss to high blood pressure to medications, diagnosing the cause or causes can be a challenge. For many people, the ringing in their ears begins for no obvious reason.

Although there’s no cure for tinnitus, several treatments can make it easier to cope. Hearing aids may help those who have hearing loss along with tinnitus. Behavioral therapy with counseling helps people learn how to live with the noise. Wearable sound generators—small electronic devices that fit in the ear—use a soft, pleasant sound to help mask the tinnitus and offer relief. Some people with tinnitus use tabletop sound generators to help them relax or fall asleep. Antidepressants and antianxiety drugs may be prescribed to improve mood and sleep patterns. Most physicians offer a combination of these treatments, depending on the severity of the tinnitus and the daily activities it affects the most.

Talk to your physician if you’ve had ringing in your ears for more than three months. Your physician will ask about the symptoms and look into the ear to search for possible causes. Patients may be referred to an otolaryngologist (specializes in conditions of the ear, nose and throat) or an audiologist (specializes in conditions of the ear) for further evaluation.

Karon Lynn, Au.D., is an audiologist at Flagstaff Medical Center’s Audiology Department.