DEAR DOCTOR K:
My ears have been ringing for the past seven months or so. When I was younger, this would happen to me for short periods, usually after a loud concert. But this is the first time it’s gone on for so long. What can I do about it?
It sounds to me like you’ve got a condition called tinnitus. Tinnitus is sound you hear in your head with no external source. The good news is that you’re not crazy. (Now if you told me that you kept hearing people talking to you, people who weren’t there, I’d be more concerned!)
Tinnitus is a common condition. Many of my patients have it. Occasionally, I have it. It doesn’t usually affect your hearing. But it can be really annoying and distracting, enough so that it affects people’s level of function. It’s as hard to concentrate when there’s a sound inside your head as when there’s a jackhammer outside your window.
Like you, many people describe having a ringing sound in one or both ears. For others, the sound is more like a whistling, buzzing, chirping, hissing, humming, roaring or even shrieking.
Tinnitus occurs occasionally in many people, often after being around extremely loud noise. It can come on after a rock concert, as in your case, or even after listening to loud music through headphones.
Some medications can cause tinnitus, too. For example, high doses of aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory pain medications can cause it. But in cases like this, the ringing or other noise usually goes away when you stop taking the medication.
It sounds like you have chronic tinnitus symptoms that last more than six months. You may worry that your tinnitus is a sign that you’re going deaf or have another serious medical problem. The good news is that this is rarely the case.
Unfortunately, it’s very hard to predict the course of chronic tinnitus. Sometimes the symptoms remain the same, sometimes they go away and sometimes they get worse. Even though there’s no cure for chronic tinnitus, it often becomes less noticeable and more manageable over time.
There are several ways to help tune out the noise and minimize its impact. Behavioral strategies and sound-generating devices, used together, can often help. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help change the way you think about and respond to tinnitus — to make you so accustomed to the sound that you notice it less.
There are also devices, worn like hearing aids, that generate low-level white noise. These can reduce the perception of tinnitus and sometimes make it less noticeable for a short time after the device is turned off.
Your general health can affect your tinnitus. Now is a good time to take stock of your diet, physical activity, sleep and stress level. If you find problems, take steps to improve them. And if the ringing doesn’t stop and is affecting your quality of life, talk to your doctor about treatment options.