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Tinnitus: 'Head noise' may not be your imagination

 A woman holds her hands to her temples.

Millions of Americans have tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. Treatment may help reduce the symptoms or help you cope.

If you think those noises you've been hearing are all in your head, you may be right. They could be caused by tinnitus, a condition often referred to as ringing in the ears.

According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS), tinnitus affects over 50 million Americans. The condition is described differently by different people. Some experience a high-pitched ringing, whining or hissing sound. Others describe the noise they hear as a low roaring noise. It can come and go or be consistent. For some, the problem is almost unnoticeable, but for millions of Americans, it's severe enough to interfere with daily life.

Causes of tinnitus

There are a number of causes of tinnitus. Damage to the hair cells in the inner ear is a common cause and frequently occurs with aging. Exposure to loud noise is the leading cause of tinnitus in younger people.

Sometimes tinnitus is caused by a temporary condition such as wax buildup in the ears. Other times, it is caused by more long-standing medical problems. These can include allergies, blood pressure problems, thyroid disorders, diabetes, a tumor, or an injury to the head or neck. Medications including aspirin, anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, sedatives and antidepressants may also cause tinnitus.

Treating tinnitus

See a doctor if you think you have tinnitus. In some cases, x-rays, lab tests and balance tests may be used to find the specific cause of the problem. Most of the time, however, no cause can be identified.

Your doctor may suggest various medications to help treat tinnitus. Beyond medications, the AAO-HNS and other experts offer several suggestions to lessen the severity of tinnitus: 

  • Avoid exposure to loud noise.
  • Monitor and control your blood pressure.
  • Avoid things that may make tinnitus worse, such as caffeine and smoking.
  • Exercise daily to improve your circulation.
  • Get adequate rest and avoid fatigue.

It can also help to avoid and manage stress and anxiety. Because the hearing mechanism is part of your general nervous system and extremely sensitive, it can be affected by both of these factors.

Coping with tinnitus

The AAO-HNS offers these suggestions for coping with tinnitus:

Learn concentration and relaxation exercises. A doctor may recommend that you learn biofeedback techniques to help with stress. You might also learn other techniques to help you relax during the day or to fall asleep at night.  

Mask the noise. A competing sound at a constant low level may make tinnitus less noticeable. A ticking clock or radio static are examples. You can also purchase products that generate white noise.

Consider a hearing aid. In some people with hearing loss, a hearing aid can reduce the noise caused by tinnitus. Some hearing aids also include maskers, which emit pleasant sounds to compete with the noise caused by tinnitus.

Reviewed 12/21/2022

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