Getting an Earful

Ever had one of those ‘ear worms‘—a song you listened to and now can’t get out of your head? (“Stuck Like Glue” is mine). Frustrating isn’t it? Now, imagine having noise continually in your ears that never stops no matter what you do.

That’s called tinnitus and about 10% to 15% of adults suffer everyday from this condition. To those patients’ it’s anything from a simple nuisance, heard only when its quiet, to downright maddening, interfering with sleep or activities. Surprisingly, hearing may be unaffected but commonly most patients will have some degree of hearing loss. We know that tinnitus usually arises from the inner ear. For some reason the inner ear (sensorineural) phone starts ringing and no one’s there to answer. Increasing age and prolonged exposure to loud noise makes us more susceptible to this condition. When physicians evaluate patients with new tinnitus medications are always the usual suspect. Aspirin, NSAIDs, water pills and some chemotherapy in high doses can cause or worsen tinnitus. Seek help right away if tinnitus occurs suddenly in only one ear with abrupt, complete hearing loss (it’s a medical emergency). Immediate treatment might restore or prevent permanent hearing loss.

In this allergy season, a milder phenomena called ‘transient ear noise’ is common. We can experience a sudden loss of hearing in one ear and feel blockage or fullness in the ear. Usually lasting for a few seconds, it clears up as quickly as it started. Although no one is really sure what happens, we theorize the eustachian tube becomes clogged and the pressure difference causes the sensation. Chewing or swallowing opens the tube—equalizing the pressure—and the sensation goes away (usually).

For tinnitus sufferers help is available. First, it’s important to get plenty of sleep and exercise. Reduce your ambient noise level as much as possible. If you use headphones for work or play keep the volume low. Reducing salt also helps and has the side benefit of lowering your blood pressure. Audiologists can assess the degree of hearing loss. They decide if hearing aids will help improve hearing and potentially diminish tinnitus (be sure you test before you buy). Cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT is very helpful in literally training the mind to forgive and forget the noise. Taking these steps can make sure you can hear us now and forever.

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About Steve P. Sanders

A general internist writing and sharing ideas and art.

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