What’s that Buzz?

Ear, Nose & Throat Care

By Dr Rekha Balachandran

Hearing noises inside your head is not always a reason to see a psychiatrist! Often times this buzzing or ringing in the ear is suggestive of an inner ear problem.

These noises are termed as ‘tinnitus’.

Tinnitus is the term for hearing sounds that come from inside your body, rather than from an outside source. Some may even hear their own heartbeat in the ears (called pulsatile tinnitus).

Tinnitus is not life threatening. What is a mere annoyance for some people, can lead to problems with concentration and affect sleep, resulting in psychological stress.

Tinnitus is frequently seen together with hearing loss. However, tinnitus is not the reason why there is hearing loss. In fact, some people with tinnitus experience no difficulty hearing. In a majority of individuals who suffer from tinnitus, there is some amount of hearing loss present (although the individual may not notice it) and in a few cases they even have an oversensitivity to certain sounds (hyperacusis).

What causes it?

Tinnitus is often associated with:

  1. Age-related hearing loss or presbycusis.
  2. Inner ear damage caused by repeated exposure to loud noises.
  3. Middle ear infection.
  4. Ménière’s disease – where there is an imbalance in the fluid of the inner ear. It is also associated with vertigo.
  5. Certain medications – like aspirins and certain groups of antibiotics, sedatives and antidepressants. Tinnitus is cited as a possible side-effect for almost 200 drugs.
  6. Blockages of the ear due to a build-up of wax or an ear infection.
  7. Other rarer causes such as otosclerosis which is an inherited condition with an abnormal bone growth in the ear or benign tumours of the auditory nerve.

Treating tinnitus

If you are experiencing tinnitus, please see your doctor who will examine your ears and see if there is any problem in the external ear such as infection or wax. These can be easily resolved by medication and micro-suction for the ear. If the ear looks normal externally, then your doctor will usually suggest you get a hearing test done to assess if there is any hearing loss and how severe it is.

There are varieties of treatment methods for tinnitus, but no one treatment that works for everyone. If a cause for the tinnitus is found, treating it may help improve the symptoms. Often though, the tinnitus is accompanied by evidence of neural damage to the inner ear and then this is irreversible.

There are things that you can do if you suffer from tinnitus which may help to alleviate the symptoms. These include using a white noise machine or soft music at night to distract the mind from the tinnitus, relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation and sometimes cognitive behavioural therapy may have some benefit. For those who need the use of a hearing aid, the amplification of surrounding sound achieved by the hearing aid itself may reduce the intensity of the tinnitus.

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