When the house falls silent in the dead of night, or after the kids have gone to school in the morning, I can hear a high-pitched, occasionally oscillating sound. If I focus on it, the noise grows louder and can even keep me awake. At first, I suspected a gadget in my home was the culprit—perhaps a faulty power adapter. But after no one else could hear it and then consulting my doctor, I realized the ringing in my ears was tinnitus.
“It’s a phantom sound generated by the brain,” says Julie Prutsman, a respected audiologist and founder of the Sound Relief Hearing Center. “A lot of people perceive it at ear level. They’ll say “my ears are ringing”. But when you try to measure it in a person’s ear, there is no signal.”
Tinnitus (correctly pronounced ti-nuh-tuhs or ti-night-us, though Prutsman prefers the former) is a very common condition. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders estimates that 10 percent of the US adult population has experienced tinnitus lasting at least five minutes in 2020. Most tinnitus cases occur with underlying hearing loss, and the majority of sufferers experience it as ringing, buzzing, or hissing, but it can even sound like music or singing.
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What Causes Tinnitus?
Noise exposure is the number one cause of tinnitus, so it’s no surprise that military service members and musicians are frequently afflicted. The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that almost half of people aged 12 to 35 years are at risk of hearing loss due to prolonged and excessive exposure to loud sounds from personal audio devices and other sources.
“Loud noise exposure results in changes, either to the inner ear, the auditory nerve, or the synapses in the brain,” Prutsman says. “But there are other things that can also cause tinnitus, including wax build-up in the ears, head injuries, hereditary factors, and other changes in health.”
Researchers used to think tinnitus was sound coming from the hair cells in the inner ear, but that was proven untrue. They also suspected the auditory nerve but found that when you sever or cut the nerve, tinnitus gets louder, not softer.
My tinnitus is noticeably worse when I feel stressed or tired, and Prutsman says these are common triggers. Anxiety and depression have also been linked with the condition, and it can even be a side effect of some drugs, including antibiotics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and chemotherapy medicines.
Coping With Tinnitus
For most people, tinnitus is short-lived and won’t require treatment. If it’s constant and persistent, lasting for more than a few days, it’s a good idea to seek advice and help from a medical professional. It’s often stated that there’s no cure for tinnitus, but it’s more accurate to say there’s no cure that will work for everyone. Research shows there are many effective ways to manage symptoms and reduce the impact on your life.
“Avoid silence and be in a sound-rich environment,” Prutsman says. “A lot of people think that masking would be the right approach to cover up the tinnitus with a louder sound, but my experience has been that you just have to keep making that masking level louder and louder. A low-level sound is more calming and soothing and can mix with the tinnitus to distract the brain.”