When a patient experiences the sensation of ringing within their ears, the cause is most likely a condition known as tinnitus. The perception of tinnitus is often referred to as ringing, but some patients report hearing whistling, chirping, hissing, or other abnormal sounds. Sometimes these noises occur intermittently, while other patients experience a constant presence of ringing. There is also no standard level of these noises, which can be distractingly loud or barely audible. Patients often report that ringing in the ears is more prevalent at nighttime, possibly due to the reduction of other auditory input as a person prepares to go to sleep.
Tinnitus is a common condition, and research suggests that as many as 50 million Americans are affected. While tinnitus may occur in conjunction with hearing loss, there is no evidence to support a link between the two. Tinnitus may be the result of an infection or can be caused by a blockage within the ear. Researchers believe that prolonged exposure to loud noises is behind most cases of tinnitus. Tinnitus can also occur as individuals age and the structures within the inner ear deteriorate.
Treatments vary, depending on the cause of the condition. If tinnitus is the result of infection, then a course of antibiotics can provide relief. For individuals who suffer chronic tinnitus as a result of exposure to loud noises, behavioral modification in the form of avoiding loud sounds can lead to relief. It is important for individuals who experience ringing in the ear to consult a physician to determine the source of the problem. In rare cases, a tumor or an abnormality in the patient's blood vessels can create a sensation of ringing within the ear. Some common treatment options are listed below.
Since tinnitus is a symptom of other conditions rather than a condition itself, treatment of the underlying cause may reduce the effects. While medications can’t provide a cure, in some cases they may reduce the intensity of tinnitus noise. Typically, medications are used only in severe cases, since most have other side effects, some of which can be aggressive. While there isn’t extensive supporting research, there is anecdotal evidence of tinnitus improvement using alternative treatment options, such as B vitamin and zinc supplements. Since these are low-risk therapies, there’s usually no harm in trying the treatments.
While tinnitus is an internal, phantom sound generated in the body, external noise can sometimes cover up the perception of the internal sound. Called sound masking, the external sound source takes priority over the tinnitus sounds, reducing the annoyance of the internal noise. Masking devices may produce white or pink noise, or ambient sounds, such as nature noises. While there are dedicated sound masking devices for this purpose, improvising sound masking with fans, tabletop fountains, or air conditioners may create the same effects. Even conventional hearing aids may help, amplifying ambient noise higher above the tinnitus base level.
Masking devices typically have effect only when the device is operating. Reconditioning sound therapy uses progressively modified sound to reduce the priority of tinnitus sounds for the sufferer. Certain frequencies, typically those that match the tinnitus of the patient, are modified and presented to the patient. Over time, these devices condition the patient’s hearing to accept tinnitus sounds as part of the ordinary background noise of life. While the tinnitus sounds still occur for the patient, modified and notched sound devices remove the perceptual burden of dealing with tinnitus. Specific approaches to these techniques varies with the device manufacturers, and typically require education and counseling as well, for best effect.