You hear a soft hum, but the television is turned off. Another day it's the constant whine of a drill, but there's no sign of construction work being done anywhere around you.
This could be tinnitus.
Roughly 50 million Americans experience some degree of tinnitus. Some people have it sporadically, while others deal with it almost daily. Tinnitus itself is not a disease, but a symptom of an underlying condition, like hearing loss or ear infection, or recent trauma.
Of the many cases of tinnitus I see in practice every year, about half have no identifiable cause. I call these cases benign tinnitus, because there's not much you can do but learn how to live with it.
The majority of the remaining cases are secondary to hearing loss. Put simply, the brain expects certain signals from the ears. When it receives a signal it doesn't expect (usually from a damaged nerve or inner ear), it tells you to pay close attention to it.
When you experience tinnitus, take a moment to evaluate your surroundings. Could the sounds actually be coming from an external source? Keep track of what's going on to help determine what could be triggering your tinnitus.
Unless you are experiencing hearing loss or significant dizziness, there is not an urgent need to see a health care provider. I recommend waiting until the tinnitus has persisted six weeks before contacting your primary care physician if you don't have those other symptoms. Most times,
Remember that there is no treatment, surgery or medicine that can "cure" tinnitus. Some claim vitamins or supplements can cure tinnitus -- these claims are simply not true.
Your health care provider can check your tinnitus for underlying causes and refer you to a specialist if indicated. It's important to have a hearing test or audiogram before seeing the ear, nose and throat doctor.
The specialist will determine if the tinnitus is being caused by something serious, such as a tumor or Meniere's disease (these are very uncommon). If it's not the result of a serious medical condition, you will be given tips to help cope with tinnitus.
I typically tell my patients to try "masking" -- sometimes called "sound therapy" (read about why it works at www.ata.org/sites/ata.org/files/pdf/Why_Sound_Therapy_Works.pdf).
This involves listening to music or ambient sounds. Sound therapy works by distracting your mind from those unexpected signals your brain tells you to pay attention to, and is most helpful when trying to fall asleep. But it's like taking a cough drop for a cold; it doesn't cure tinnitus, but should reduce symptoms.
You can also reduce tinnitus by reviewing your medications with a medical professional (large amounts of aspirin on a daily basis can also cause severe buzzing) and stress management: things like getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising and picking up a hobby. Eventually, tinnitus usually goes away on its own.
The American Tinnitus Association has many great resources for people who suffer from tinnitus. If you are struggling with tinnitus, check their website at www.ata.org.
Dr. Liam Keating practices otorhinolaryngology (ear, nose and throat medicine) at the Contra Costa Regional Medical Center. "Healthy Outlook" is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more health information, go to www.cchealth.org.