Ringing in Ears Sound

Are You Plagued by a Ringing Sound in Your Ears?

If you experience the phenomenon of a ringing sound in your ears, then, according to the British Medical Journal, you may just be one of an estimated 300 to 600 million people worldwide who are affected. Also, it is likely that, during their lifetime, as much as a third of the world’s population will have experienced at least one episode, even if only temporarily, of the condition medical experts describe more precisely as subjective tinnitus.

As the use of the adjective “subjective” implies, the offending intrusions, which may also manifest as buzzing, whooshing, hissing, chirping, and similar noises, cannot be overheard by a physician or an audiologist during an aural examination. By contrast, a variant of this condition is associated with noises that may be detected by an examining physician. These noises may occur as the result of muscle spasms, abnormal blood flow, or physical anomalies within the auditory system. This condition is known as objective tinnitus and is less common than the intrusive ringing sound in the ears which, when sufficiently persistent, can often become a source of severe stress and depression.

Ringing in EarsThe possible causes of subjective tinnitus are manifold and, in many cases, the annoying phantom sounds are purely temporary. For example, it may arise as a side effect of contact with certain chemicals. These may be substances used in the performance of one’s job, or a chemical present in household cleaning products or contained in prescribed medicines. However, although these substances may precipitate the sensation of ringing and other sounds in the ears, once contact with the causative agent is discontinued or the offending medication changed, the unpleasant side effects of these chemicals will normally subside quite quickly.

Another common cause of the temporary phenomenon, and one that many of those who read this article will have experienced, at some time or other, is exposure to a sudden loud noise. A gunshot or detonating firework can sometimes produce this effect, which may persist for a day or two and, more often than not, is accompanied by a dulled sense of hearing. Curiously, among those who are at greatest risk are the employees in call centres where unexpected, high pitched tones can cause muscle spasms in the middle ear. In some cases, the sensation of a ringing sound in the ears may fail to subside and result in persistent subjective tinnitus.

Certain of our everyday activities may expose us to the risk of tinnitus. For instance, it occurs quite frequently among those who work in noisy environment or who like to unwind by attending live music concerts. Hearing Link UK estimates that around 10% of Brits are affected by tinnitus and that in about half of these cases, the subjects claim that the intrusive phantom noises have a significant impact on their quality of life.

Only rarely does a single exposure to loud noise result in permanent tinnitus. However, noise-induced hearing loss among those who are exposed repeatedly is commonplace and furthermore, it is frequently accompanied by the ringing sound in the ears associated with subjective tinnitus. This has led researchers to conclude that the two may be interrelated. While there is a lack of consensus regarding the precise mechanism underlying the tinnitus, it seems clear that, in common with noise-induced hearing loss, it is related to the decline or destruction of the sensory hair cells that line the organ of Corti in the cochlea.

While understanding the causes of tinnitus is of academic interest, those who are forced to live with it daily are more interested in a cure. Sadly, as yet, there isn’t one. In practice, the best that medicine has to offer are measures to limit the severity of the symptoms or to mask the sound of ringing in a subject’s ears, so that they become less apparent and therefore easier to ignore.

Interestingly, and further supporting a link between hearing loss and tinnitus, a hearing aid can sometimes correct both issues, improving audition, whilst the newly-enriched sound environment serves to mask the phantom noises.

Alternatively, a white noise generator can produce a similar effect when incorporated into a hearing aid or offered as an accessory. For those with no significant hearing loss, a mobile app or CD, and a pair of headphones can help subjects to cope more effectively with the ringing sound in their ears. Antioxidant and micronutrient preparations, as well as counselling, are helpful too and also available in South Africa from Ear Institute clinics.
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