Ringing in the ears? It might be tinnitus

Published: February, 2015

Hearing a ringing sound when there aren't any bells nearby may be tinnitus (pronounced tin-NIGHT-us or TIN-nih-tus), a hearing problem that affects up to one in 10 men (and women). For some, the ringing, hissing, buzzing, and other sounds of tinnitus are a minor distraction. For others, they are a serious problem that causes depression, insomnia, and difficulties with work and family life, reports the February 2015 Harvard Men's Health Watch.

Most tinnitus arises from physical damage to sound-sensing cells in the inner ear. This damage causes these cells to send "sound" signals to the brain even when everything is quiet.

Everyone with ringing in the ears should see a specialist for a comprehensive evaluation to rule out potential physical causes such as problems in the brain or blood vessels. Some medications can also cause tinnitus symptoms.

"My recommendation is to get an annual audiogram," says Dr. Eduardo Corrales, an instructor in otology and neurotology at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. "Is your hearing getting worse? Your tinnitus may also get worse."

A variety of treatments are available. Some have been proven to work, some haven't yet been proven, and others don't work at all. Here are recommendations for possible treatments from the American Academy of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery:

Recommended: evaluation for a hearing aid; cognitive behavioral therapy to improve tinnitus coping skills.

Consider as an option: artificially generated sound, sometimes from a device worn on the ear, to alter the perception of or reaction to tinnitus.

Not recommended: prescription medications such as antidepressants, tranquilizers, antiseizure drugs, or steroid injections; dietary supplements such as Ginkgo biloba, melatonin, or zinc.

No recommendation for or against: acupuncture, biofeedback, or other stress-reduction approaches. These may work for some people, but haven't been fully evaluated in clinical trials.

Read the full-length article: "Ringing in the ears? Get it checked"

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