Constant Ringing in Ears

The Causes and Management of Constant Ringing in the Ears

It is estimated that, in the US alone, 50 million people experience the sensation of phantom sounds, such as ringing in their ears. For most, it is not a constant sensation, but a temporary one that fades after a while. For about 40%, however, the sounds are ongoing and cause varying degrees of distress. Furthermore, in an estimated 2 million of these, the sensation is severe enough to cause acute debility.

The phenomenon, for which the medical term is tinnitus, is not an illness per se, but an isolated symptom which, in many cases, does not appear to be associated with any obvious pathology. Nevertheless, a number of factors have been identified as apparently instrumental in provoking the onset of this purely subjective perception of sounds with no external origin. That said, there is, in fact, a rarer form of tinnitus in which these sounds may also be perceived by an examining physician. Known as objective tinnitus, it is most often due to anomalies in the local vascular system, or the result of muscle spasms in the middle ear, and tends to be intermittent.

In practice, not everyone affected by the more common, subjective form of tinnitus experiences the sensation of constant ringing in his or her ears. Some sufferers report hearing different noises. These include, whining, buzzing, clicking, roaring, whooshing, whistling, and even sounds resembling music or voices.

Common Causes of Tinnitus

Several factors are known to provoke the onset of tinnitus. As mentioned earlier, it is usually temporary, and such cases can be attributed to one of three main causes. A sudden exposure to loud noise, such as a gunshot or a detonating fire cracker will often result in temporary deafness accompanied by tinnitus. Untreated, both symptoms will invariably disappear within a day or two at most.

A similar effect will often accompany a simple ear infection, and providing that this is treated promptly and effectively, once again, the symptoms should clear up. Even in the absence of any infection, some people may be prone to an excessive build-up of wax in the ear canal, and this too could lead to a constant ringing in the ears that is likely to continue until they are cleared of the excess wax.

Persistent tinnitus will almost inevitably accompany hearing loss, whether conductive, as in the case of otosclerosis, a common cause of progressive deafness among younger individuals, or in the noise-induced, sensorineural variety resulting from damage to the delicate hair cells lining the cochlea. One of the less common causes is Ménière’s disease, a condition that affects the inner ear and results in vertigo. Other rare causes include diabetes and thyroid disorders, a benign tumour known as an acoustic neuroma, and head injuries.

Current Options for the Management of Tinnitus

One thing that needs to be clarified is that, as with hearing loss, there is currently no cure for tinnitus. However, just as the former may be managed very effectively with the use of a hearing aid or, in more extreme cases, a cochlear implant, there are now a number of options for the effective management of tinnitus that are able to minimise the annoying, constant ringing sensation in the ears, as well as the stress it produces.

Interestingly, while suspected but not confirmed as a possible cause of tinnitus, stress is definitely known to intensify the symptoms, in what can best be described as a vicious circle effect. As a consequence, specialist counselling, plays a significant role in modern programmes designed to manage this frequently very stressful condition. In addition to the psychological aspects of a tinnitus management programme, new technologies are playing an increasingly effective role. While they are still unable to provide a permanent cure, their purpose is to help those affected ignore the phantom noises and prevent them from intruding upon their ability to live a normal life.

For sufferers with hearing loss, modified hearing aids can generate white noise, or soothing and pleasant sounds to mask those of tinnitus, while others can gain similar relief using audio CDs or smartphone apps.

Getting Help in South Africa

Ear Institute clinics offer a complete service for tinnitus suffers, starting with a hearing test. For those, found to have hearing loss, the sound enrichment provided by a conventional hearing aid will often suffice to mask the constant ringing in the ears. Counselling, other sound enrichment options and hearing-health supplements complete our clinics’ comprehensive offering to tinnitus sufferers.
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