You might be the only one who can hear the ringing in your ears, but that doesn’t mean you’re alone. A new study published in JAMA Otolaryngology Head & Neck Surgery found that 1 in 10 adults suffers from tinnitus, or the perception of noise that isn't actually there.
For some people it's a high-pitched buzz. Others might hear a low roar, hissing, or clicking. Tinnitus may come and go, or never stop. And doctors may never determine the exact cause of the symptom.
It can be triggered by anything from a buildup of earwax or a very loud concert to a blood vessel disorder or age-related hearing loss. Even some antidepressants and other meds can trigger a phantom noise.
Unfortunately for most chronic cases, there's no cure, as the American Tinnitus Association points out. But there are steps you can take to manage the symptom. For tips on coping with the ringing, we tapped Sarah Mowry, MD, an assistant professor and member of the Ear, Nose & Throat Institute at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Here, Dr. Mowry's tips for anyone bothered by the noise.
If you're having trouble concentrating or resting, turn on some white noise. You could use a sound machine, a fan, or even the TV at low volume. “These help your brain suppress the [phantom] noise so it’s less bothersome,” Dr. Mowry explains.
Try to de-stress
Tinnitus can actually be a sign from your body that it's time to take a breather, says Dr. Mowry. “My patients will say they’re not sure why [their tinnitus is] so bad today, and then it turns out they’re stressed and not sleeping,” says Dr. Mowry. When you put stress management techniques into practice (like breathing exercises, or gentle stretching before bed), you may find that you don't notice the noise as much.
If your usual tension-busting measures don’t help, you might want to look into biofeedback therapy, in which you learn to control your body's physical reaction to stress. Dr. Mowry compares some cases of tinnitus to phantom pain (or sensation perceived in a body part that's been amputated); when a patient is suffering from tinnitus from hearing loss, she explains, it may be that "their brain is trying to fill in missing information" with the phantom noise. "For those patients, we do a lot of biofeedback," she says.
Or tinnitus retraining therapy
A combination of biofeedback, psychotherapy, and music therapy, tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT) is another option for patients who are struggling to live with the noise, says Dr. Mowry. It can be difficult to find a practitioner, she warns, and may not be covered by your insurance plan. But when nothing else has worked, TRT can make a world of difference.
It may be helpful to connect with others who are dealing with the same problem, Dr. Mowry points out. By attending meetings of a tinnitus support group, not only will you realize you're not alone, but you'll be able to share coping strategies with the people you meet.
Protect your ears
“Tinnitus gets worse as hearing loss gets worse,” explains Dr. Mowry, which means it's really important to protect your ears when you know you'll be exposed to loud noise. Dr. Mowry recommends taking precautions such as wearing earplugs when you blow dry your hair (seriously!) or go to a concert. Research suggests earplugs really do help: A study published last month found that only 12% of concert-goers who wore them experienced ringing in their ears afterwards, compared to 40% of people who didn't use ear protection.