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Ringing in the ears

A term commonly used to describe tinnitus

‘Ringing in the ears’ is a descriptive term for tinnitus. It is a condition where ‘phantom sounds’ can be heard in one or both ears without a corresponding external source. Helen Cosgrove, our advisor in this subject, gives an in-depth explanation of this effect of tinnitus.

An introduction to 'ringing in the ears'

Tinnitus has been in the English language for a very long time - the word tinnitus originates from Latin, ‘tinnire’, meaning ‘to ring’ or ‘a ringing’. Although tinnitus has been described in this manner for centuries, other types of noises can be heard including buzzing, whistling, hissing, whooshing or even music.

The noises experienced in tinnitus can be irritating, troublesome and for some, may affect normal everyday activities. Over the years, a number of methods have been developed to help treat tinnitus. However, there is no one single ‘right’ treatment and options depend on many factors, including whether the cause for tinnitus has been identified.

My ears are ringing!

The important thing to remember with tinnitus is that you are not alone in your suffering - around one in ten people experience the same problem at some stage in their life. Many famous people have experienced tinnitus, including Beethoven who complained ‘my ears whistle and buzz all day and night. I can say I am leading a wretched life’.

More recently Black Eyed Peas singer, Will.i.am reported that he doesn’t know what silence is anymore and ‘I can’t be quiet as that’s when I notice the ringing in my ears’. Barbra Streisand ascribes her volatile temperament to having suffered tinnitus from the age of seven!

What causes ringing in the ears?

In some cases, tinnitus may be a symptom of another condition such as an ear infection, ear wax or the side effect of prescribed medication. However, for many people, no cause for the problem can be identified.

The precise mechanism giving rise to tinnitus is not fully understood but it is believed that it arises as a result of disturbances to the way that nerves work between the ear and the brain. In an older person, this may be made worse because blood flow diminishes with age – this is the reason that Ginkgo biloba can sometimes be of help in tinnitus.

What treatments are available?

Treatment of tinnitus is largely dependent on the cause of the problem. A bacterial infection of the middle ear is treated using antibiotics, ear wax with ear drops and syringing.

If no underlying cause for the problem can be identified, treatment will then focus on a variety of methods and self-help techniques to ease symptoms, such as:

  • Relaxation techniques
  • Counselling groups and self-help
  • Herbal remedies and other complementary treatments
  • Dietary management

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