DEAR DOCTOR K:
I have tinnitus, and the constant sound is driving me crazy. What can I do?
Tinnitus is commonly known as ringing in the ears. This phrase can be misleading, however. Some people hear ringing, while others hear whistles or a combination of sounds.
Unusual sounds in your ears may seem like a trivial problem — unless you have it. All of my patients with tinnitus are, at the very least, annoyed by it. Some, like you, are really irritated. It is a constant worry and distraction, and it does interfere with their lives.
Nearly everyone has had tinnitus for a few seconds or minutes after hearing a very loud noise. That’s normal. What’s abnormal is when people have tinnitus that persists. In some people, the symptoms remain the same over time; in others, they worsen.
If you haven’t already, see your doctor. He or she can check for a physical cause such as impacted earwax, Meniere’s disease, a hole in your inner ear, or middle ear problems such as an infection or a tumor. Physical causes of tinnitus can often be relieved. You might need surgery, antibiotics to fight an ear infection or removal of impacted earwax.
If you have tinnitus and hearing loss, both problems may improve after you get a hearing aid or have a cochlear implant.
Certain medications can also cause tinnitus. The list is too long to include here, but it includes angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, calcium-channel blockers, benzodiazepines and the diuretic furosemide (Lasix). Give your doctor a list of the medications you are taking so he or she can make sure that they are not contributing to your condition.
Unfortunately, for most people with tinnitus, there is no obvious cause. Counseling can help you learn to cope with your symptoms. And some people find that their symptoms improve somewhat when they cut down on caffeine and alcohol, reduce the amount of fat in their diets and quit smoking.
Try the following techniques, which may also help reduce your tinnitus symptoms:
- When you’re in a quiet room, put on music or use a “white noise” machine. Background noise tends to drown out tinnitus sounds.
- Try tinnitus retraining therapy. This involves listening to a tone that is similar to the tinnitus sound for hours at a time. Eventually, your brain ignores the tone, along with the tinnitus sound.
- Tinnitus often worsens with stress. Try yoga, visualization or other relaxation techniques. Also try mindfulness meditation, which helps you learn to ignore irritations such as the sound of tinnitus.
- Consider biofeedback or hypnosis.
Tinnitus is one of what I’ve called the “minor maladies of man.” Some doctors don’t take it seriously, but in my experience many patients really are bothered by it. Some ear specialists are subspecialists in diagnosing and treating the condition. In most major metropolitan areas there probably is such a specialist, so do some legwork to find one in your area.