How to manage tinnitus (when your ears are ringing)

November 11, 2013 Kristiina Huckabay, AuD, FAAA

Almost all individuals experience ”transient ear noises” which is the intermittent sensation of ringing (lasting less than five minutes)—typically in one ear. At times this sensation is accompanied by a sensation of fullness or a momentary change in hearing.

When this change is brief, it is a normal phenomenon. If it lasts longer than five minutes, twice a week, you should be evaluated for tinnitus.

What should I do when my ear(s) start ringing?

The first step is a comprehensive hearing evaluation by an audiologist. Tinnitus can be caused by a variety of auditory disorders and a complete audiology evaluation will confirm and/or rule out many of these conditions. Pending the hearing test results, you may be referred to an otolaryngologist (sometimes referred to as an ENT or an Ear, Nose and Throat physician) or other health care providers. The otolaryngologist will further investigate your tinnitus for possible medical causes.

It is normal for tinnitus to occasionally change in the pitch and intensity; however, significant and prolonged changes in tinnitus (increased loudness or tinnitus that is one-sided) should be (re)evaluated. Tinnitus that is present in one ear (unilateral) or pulsatile will always require an otolaryngology evaluation after the hearing evaluation. Tinnitus that is accompanied by a sudden hearing loss is considered an emergent condition and individuals should be evaluated by an audiologist and otolaryngologist as soon as possible.

How can I manage my tinnitus?

Tinnitus can evoke various responses. Some individuals are aware of their tinnitus, but not bothered by the presence of the sound. Others find it quite distressing and can have interrupted sleep patterns. A key to managing tinnitus is managing your reaction to the sound. This can be much easier said than done, but with a few tips, hopefully you will leave this posting with some ideas to try.

For many individuals, tinnitus is most bothersome at the end of the day when they are trying to sleep. If you place yourself in a quiet room with tinnitus, what will you notice? The tinnitus of course! If you place yourself in a room with some ambient noise you may still hear the tinnitus, but it may be more tolerable. The key is to find an acceptable noise source to reduce the contrast from the quiet room and your tinnitus or divert your attention away from the tinnitus. Here are some potential sounds to consider:

Soothing sounds (a sound that makes you feel better)

  • sound of running water, table-top fountain
  • music

Background sounds (neutral sounds; neither soothing nor interesting)

  • white noise
  • fan noise

Interesting sounds

  • talk radio
  • audiobooks
  • podcasts

At times, you may need soothing sounds and at other times you may need interesting sounds. Find a few options that work for you and be creative as you learn to manage your tinnitus.

Amplification choices

For some individuals, managing tinnitus with sound will not be enough. For individuals with hearing loss, the use of hearing aids may reduce tinnitus while wearing the devices. Additionally, there are a number of combination devices available today that provide quality amplification to address the hearing loss as well as a built in masker noise to minimize the impact of tinnitus. Ask your audiologist if a combination unit might be right for you.

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