Tinnitus — What IS that Ringing in My Ears?

April 25th, 2012 by Bettie Borton, Au.D. FAAA


Tinnitus is the term for the perception of sound when no external sound is present. It is often referred to as “ringing in the ears,” although people describe it as hissing, roaring, whistling, chirping, or clicking. Tinnitus can be intermittent or constant, and can range from very soft to extremely loud. If you suffer with this condition, you’re not alone. According to the American Tinnitus Association (ATA) it is estimated that over 50 million Americans experience tinnitus to some degree. Of these, about 12 million have severe enough tinnitus to seek medical attention.

Bettie Borton, Au.D. Doctor of Audiology AudiologistAre you at risk? Knowing the causes of tinnitus puts you in a better position to avoid the problem, and since there’s no known cure for this condition, avoiding the problem altogether if you can is certainly the best option.  Interestingly, no one knows what causes tinnitus, but there are several likely factors that could create or worsen this problem: noise exposure, wax buildup in the ear canal, certain medications, ear or sinus infections, age-related hearing loss, ear diseases and disorders, jaw misalignment, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure, certain types of tumors, thyroid disorders, head and neck trauma, and many others. And now new research reveals more of us might experience tinnitus due to cellphone use. Sure, you love your cell. How did we ever get along without them? But a report that appeared in the British Medical Journal indicates that cellphone use — especially extended cellphone use — may now be added to the list of culprits for causing or increasing tinnitus. Since the incidence of tinnitus is increasing, researchers are suspicious that this is due, at least in part, to our increased cellphone use.

Of the factors noted above, according to the ATA, exposure to loud noises and hearing loss are the most common causes of tinnitus. Noise exposure and hearing loss might cause the brain to rewire itself. In other words, that ringing in your ears could be a brain thing, not an ear thing, though research is far from conclusive. However, research suggests that protecting your hearing from loud noise may be increasingly important. Even if your hearing is not permanently affected by noise exposure, the way your brain processes sound could be changed, which could result in tinnitus. You might want to consider that the next time you plug in your MP3 earbuds.

The problem stemming from cellphone use may be due to a potential link between mobile phones and the auditory pathway, which directly absorbs a considerable amount of energy emitted by  the device. In other words, the wireless connectivity required for cellphone use might actually damage the hearing mechanism, making a bad situation worse.

Some who experience tinnitus only hear the ringing when they’re in a quiet environment and are less aware of it as their surroundings get noisier, masking the tinnitus. But when things get quiet, tinnitus returns — often at night, making sleep difficult. Unfortunately, there are millions who hear their tinnitus at all times, no matter what the level of background noise is in their environment.

No one should ever ignore persistent tinnitus. Not only is every individual entitled to a chance to regain his or her quality of life, but in rare cases tinnitus also can be a symptom of a more serious health issue that could demand medical intervention. What’s more, nearly everyone with tinnitus has hearing loss as well. While nothing will cure that incessant ringing or roaring in the ears, there are options to treat the symptoms, lessening the negative impact tinnitus has on quality of life. Treating hearing loss, either by medical management, if indicated, or with hearing aids, or sound therapy with special maskers, may offer relief of tinnitus. Other new and effective tinnitus treatments are also available, including use of the supplement NAC.

If you have tinnitus, a comprehensive hearing evaluation by an audiologist is recommended. While not a cure for tinnitus, hearing aids are the most commonly used treatment for problematic tinnitus. They may be able to help by:

• Improving communication and reducing stress, which makes it easier to cope with the condition.

• Amplifying background sounds, which can make tinnitus seem less loud and prominent.

A new type of hearing aid called an open fit could be particularly useful in alleviating tinnitus. The open fit aid can reduce the effects of the tinnitus ringing sensation while still allowing sounds from the outside to pass into the ear.

Bettie Borton, Au.D. FAAA

About Bettie Borton, Au.D. FAAA

Dr. Bettie B. Borton is a licensed audiologist in Alabama, and was the first audiologist in Montgomery to hold certification by the American Board of Audiology, and is the only audiologist with such certification in private practice in this area.