Ringing – or buzzing, whirring or whistling – in the ears is remarkably common. About one of every five people has it.
For most people, it’s a nuisance… but not much more. For others, though, it can interfere with hearing, make sleep difficult and generally drive them to distraction.
So what is ringing in the ears… and can you do anything about it? Today we’ll talk about the problem and how you may be able to make it stop.
Many different situations can cause ringing in your ears. But whatever the cause, that ringing is a “phantom noise.” In other words, your brain is interpreting nerve impulses as noise. Noise that really isn’t there.
One common cause – and the easiest to resolve – is a build-up of wax in your ears.
Earwax helps prevent ear canal damage by trapping dirt and bacteria. But it can build up.
If normal washing doesn’t remove waxy build-up, the blockage can lead to ringing in your ears. Your doctor can safely remove the excess wax, and that should clear the problem up.
Damage to tiny “hairs” in your inner ear can cause send false nerve signals to your brain. Since your brain is hard-wired to interpret signals from these hairs as sound, you wind up with a buzzing, whistling or ringing in your ears.
Ringing can also be caused by age-related hearing loss and damage from exposure to loud noises. Like damage to the hairs in your inner ear, these causes are harder to deal with.
For some people, using a hearing aid helps block the “background” noise of the ringing. This seems to work because your brain gives priority to sounds “outside your head.”
Avoiding caffeine and nicotine – coffee, colas and cigarettes – may help. These stimulants may make ringing worse.
Gentle background noise may help, too. Just running a fan or playing soft music may be enough to distract your mind from the phantom noise.
Some studies also show that homeopathic remedies may be useful for ringing in the ears. In a 2007 study at the State University of New York, even people with severe ringing found relief with a homeopathic remedy.1
So you don’t necessarily have to put up with that ringing in your ears. And there’s even more good news on the horizon.
A recent Georgetown University study may have taken us closer to understanding how and where the phantom noise arises in our brains. Researchers there discovered that the ringing in people’s ears isn’t just caused by the part of the brain responsible for hearing.
Ringing ears may also involve the limbic system – a part of the brain linked to emotion and behavior. People with ringing in their ears show extra activity in this part of their brain, too.
The researchers are hopeful this discovery may lead to a solution. Meanwhile, if you have ringing – or buzzing, whistling or whirring – talk to your doctor. There’s a good chance one of these options could give you at least some relief right now.
Dr. Kenneth Woliner
1 Goldstein B, et al. Clear Tinnitus, middle-ear pressure, and tinnitus relief: a prospective trial. Int Tinnitus J. 2007;13(1):29-39.