Ringing in your ears, or tinnitus, is a common aftermath of a night at a boisterous club or thunderous concert. The annoying sound generally resolves itself in a few hours. But evidence is mounting that loud noise not only damages the delicate cilia in your inner ear, but also causes other neural pathways to become hyperactive.
According to the American Tinnitus Association, more than 50 million people suffer from tinnitus, which can range from intermittent and mild to severe and debilitating. People with tinnitus typically describe ringing in the ears, but the condition can also manifest itself with whooshing, hissing, buzzing, or other sounds. Musicians Pete Townsend, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, and Al DiMeola are among those who now live with tinnitus and hearing loss, the result of years deafening concerts. The condition affects many returning veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who were exposed to sustained noise from helicopters, mortar explosions, and gunfire. The Department of Veterans Affairs identifies tinnitus as the most common service-related disability among veterans.
However, even if you’ve never been in battle and aren’t a regular at earsplitting concerts, which typically reach 120 decibels or more, you can still develop tinnitus if you’re consistently exposed to noise above 85 decibels. Everyday sounds like a power mower, music at high volume, a jet roaring overhead, or a child screaming register above 85 decibels, the level at which damage to your ears can occur. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, workers exposed to noise above 85 decibels for an eight-hour period are at increased risk of occupational noise-induced hearing loss.
New research at the University of Michigan reveals that somatosensory nerves in the face and neck continue to be highly active following exposure to loud noise, even after hearing returns to normal. Somatosensory nerves detect touch, vibration, temperature, and pain. The researchers speculate that hyperactivity in these nerves indicates that the brain compensates for loss of auditory input by “hearing” sounds that do not exist.
People with tinnitus often find that they can change or reduce the sound by moving their head or neck, or sometimes by clenching their jaw—motions that affect the somatosensory nerves. In the findings published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the University of Michigan researchers point out that future treatment for tinnitus could include interrupting this somatosensory pathway in order to lessen the ringing or buzzing sounds.
If you experience recurring ringing in your ears, the first step is to get your hearing checked, says Susan Eckardt, an audiologist with Parker Hearing Institute in Seal Beach. “Most of the time, tinnitus is associated with hearing loss,” she explains. Although there is no cure for tinnitus, the symptoms can be managed, usually with a combination of support and behavioral therapy. The behavioral methods may include relaxation, visualization, and sound therapy. “If tinnitus interferes with sleep, you can put on a fan, a radio at low volume, or recorded soothing sounds,” Eckardt suggests. “You are basically masking the sounds of tinnitus.”
To prevent chronic tinnitus, be careful to protect your hearing by avoiding noise at damaging levels. Keep the music volume down—Eckardt recommends keeping the volume below the halfway level on an iPod or other MP3 player. “If you have to shout over the music to have a conversation, it’s too loud,” she says. Wearing earplugs when needed helps avoid overexposure to loud noise at home or in the workplace, too.
Sometimes medication can trigger or worsen tinnitus. These medications include some antibiotics, certain medications used to treat cancer, and even aspirin at very high doses. If you feel that tinnitus may be related to a medication you are taking, check with your doctor and pharmacist—it may be possible to switch to a different drug that does not produce this effect.