Tinnitus, or ringing of the ears, is one of the most common presenting complaints in the Otolaryngologist's office. Most people do notice at least some sound in their ears if they get into a quiet room, but for some patients this can be so loud it interferes with their life. Some people have difficulty sleeping because the tinnitus is so bothersome.
Tinnitus is an actual electrical signal that is generated either in the cochlea, or hearing nerve, or in the nerve that connects the cochlea to the brain stem. It is very similar to the noise signals that are present in telephone lines. It is much more common in older individuals and persons having noise induced hearing loss. The degree of ringing perceived in the ears often correlates with the degree of hearing loss that is present.
The problem related to tinnitus appears to be one that for certain persons the sound is perceived much more loudly than it is for other people. Current research is directed toward attempting to understand why one person would be so much more severely affected than another and how to change the problem. It is virtually impossible to make tinnitus go away, but it is possible to assist people with decreasing the effect of tinnitus.
The principle mechanism to make tinnitus more tolerable is that of masking noise. Simply put, you need to listen to something besides the ringing in your ears. Some people accomplish this by keeping a radio playing softly in the background. Other people tune a radio to the crackling white noise between stations, and yet other people purchase a white noise generator which can be tuned to sound like falling rain, surf at the seashore or forest noises. For most people, this is an effective method of coping with their tinnitus.
Hearing aids can be of benefit in managing the tinnitus as they amplify useful environmental sound that gives something other than ringing to focus the mind upon.
At present, there is no medicine or surgery that has been proven to give benefit to patients who experience tinnitus. Hundreds of medicines and several surgical procedures have been tried but none of these are consistent in their effect, and thus we cannot recommend any particular treatment as definitely effective. Taking Melatonin at bedtime has been shown to assist with improvement in sleep and may help patients who are bothered by their tinnitus at night. The herbal remedy, Gingko Biloba, is currently touted as a tinnitus remedy and there are good anecdotal reports of its ability to improve ringing. It is worth a try but is not as yet a proven treatment.
Avoidance of caffeine helps many patients with tinnitus. For persons taking aspirin or Ibuprofen, a switch to Acetaminophen would be potentially of benefit. Some patients experience tinnitus as a side effect of their medication, so if you are on medications that can be switched to another type of compound, you might talk to your doctor about this. In general, a person with tinnitus should attempt to minimize the amount of medication they take.
Stress and tiredness both tend to adversely affect tinnitus. You will notice that your tinnitus is worse when you are fatigued or under a great deal of stress. Minimizing your stress and staying well rested can keep the symptoms quite tolerable. Tinnitus is one of those problems for which there is not likely to be a miracle cure, but there will always be creative ways to adapt to the problem and minimize its effect on your life.