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All in your head: Battling tinnitus

Ringing. Buzzing. Humming. Hissing. Popping. Roaring. About 36 million Americans hear noises like those every day. The problem is, they’re not generated by an outside event—they’re all in the hearers’ heads. Nonetheless, the sounds of tinnitus are very real.

A creeping condition

Although tinnitus doesn’t generally affect people until they reach their middle years, the condition usually builds up slowly, the result of a lifetime of exposure to all manner of noise. What begins as a few fleeting episodes of ringing, buzzing or clicking can develop into a constant nuisance.

Underlying causes

Sometimes tinnitus is caused by conditions other than noise exposure, such as wax buildup, severe ear infections and drug and food allergies. High cholesterol can be a culprit if it clogs arteries that carry oxygen to the nerves of the inner ear. Diseases such as diabetes or arthritis, certain medications (including aspirin, ibuprofen, some anti-inflammatories and antibiotics, antidepressants and chemotherapy) and neurologic or vascular abnormalities also can trigger tinnitus. The good news is that treating an underlying cause of tinnitus almost always eliminates the head noises, too.

Noises off

These treatments can eliminate tinnitus or lessen its unpleasant effects when no root cause is found:

  • Drown it out. Masking devices produce a “white noise,” such as the sound of a waterfall, that distracts you from the tinnitus. The devices can be worn like a hearing aid or placed on a table. Some devices are a combination of the two. Even listening to static on the radio can drown out tinnitus.
  • Use medication. Your healthcare provider may prescribe medication to relieve or eliminate head noise.
  • De-stress your life. High tension can make tinnitus worse. Try relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, massage or listening to music.
  • Avoid noisy environments, fatigue, alcoholic beverages and smoking.
  • Ask about surgery. When vascular abnormalities are the culprit, surgery may be considered to correct the situation in which arteries press too closely against the inner ear.

Finally, report chronic head noises to your healthcare provider. He or she may help you eliminate them or at least help you live with them.