Constant noise in the head – such as ringing in the ears – rarely indicates a serious health problem, but it sure can be annoying. Here’s how to minimize it.
Tinnitus (pronounced tih-NITE-us or TIN-ih-tus) is sound in the head with no external source. For many, it’s a ringing sound, while for others, it’s whistling, buzzing, chirping, hissing, humming, roaring, or even shrieking. The sound may seem to come from one ear or both, from inside the head, or from a distance. It may be constant or intermittent, steady or pulsating.
Almost everyone has had tinnitus for a short time after being exposed to extremely loud noise. For example, attending a loud concert can trigger short-lived tinnitus. Some medications (especially aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs taken in high doses) can cause tinnitus that goes away when the drug is discontinued. A more serious problem is chronic tinnitus — symptoms lasting more than six months. As many as 50 to 60 million people in the United States suffer from this condition; it’s especially common in people over age 55 and strongly associated with hearing loss. Many people worry that tinnitus is a sign that they are going deaf or have another serious medical problem, but it rarely is.
Most tinnitus is subjective, meaning that only you can hear the noise. But sometimes it’s objective, meaning that someone else can hear it, too. For example, if you have a heart murmur, you may hear a whooshing sound with every heartbeat; your clinician can also hear that sound through a stethoscope. Many people can hear their heartbeat — a phenomenon called pulsatile tinnitus — especially as they grow older, because blood flow tends to be more turbulent in arteries whose walls have stiffened with age. Pulsatile tinnitus may be more noticeable at night, when you’re lying in bed, because more blood is reaching your head, and there are fewer external sounds to mask the tinnitus. If you notice any new pulsatile tinnitus, you should consult a clinician, because in rare cases it is a sign of a tumor or blood vessel damage.
The course of chronic tinnitus is unpredictable. Sometimes the symptoms remain the same, and sometimes they get worse. In about 10% of cases, the condition interferes with everyday life so much that professional health is needed.
In Chinese medicine, chronic Tinnitus is believed to be caused by kidney weakness, according to Pacific College of Oriental Medicine Faculty Member Dr. Mohammed Javaherian. Acupuncture is recommended and treatments will focus most likely on the kidney meridians, as well as on points along the liver and gallbladder meridians to help strengthen the root of the problem.
Tinnitus is linked to nerve and touch sensitivity. For some people, clenching one’s jaws or applying pressure to the neck can bring on or reduce tinnitus episodes. Acupuncture patients with this disorder will have a high response rate to the nerve’s natural response to pressure and the disorder’s sensitivity to certain points. The practice of acupuncture is based on the stimulation of certain points on the body, as well as meridians and channels. Stimulating specific points (which are determined based on the patient’s unique case) can rebalance the qi (one’s life force) and alleviate the source of the problem. It is integral in traditional Chinese medicine to treat the origin of an ailment as well as the symptoms, and TCM has several theories as to what causes tinnitus.
For example, in more temporary cases of Tinnitus, high emotional strain or sudden anger can lead to a ringing in the ears. Also, diet can have an effect. Practitioners of TCM believe that excessive greasy foods or irregular eating can lead to Phlegm (a TCM term that commonly refers to a retention in body fluid), which prevents the rising of clear qi to the head (resulting in the “phantom noise” associated with tinnitus). Overworking or excessive physical strain can lead to a nerve disturbance, causing tinnitus. Lastly, trauma is a common cause of the ringing noise associated with this disorder.
Along with acupuncture, Chinese herbs can be prescribed depending upon the location of the weakness.
Western medicine is limited in its treatment options for Tinnitus; no prescription drug is available for this condition. However, with careful management and the natural remedies found in traditional Chinese medicine, there is a resource waiting to be tapped.
Auditory pathways and tinnitus
Sound waves travel through the ear canal to the middle and inner ear, where hair cells in part of the cochlea help transform sound waves into electrical signals that then travel to the brain’s auditory cortex via the auditory nerve. When hair cells are damaged — by loud noise or ototoxic drugs, for example — the circuits in the brain don’t receive the signals they’re expecting. This stimulates abnormal activity in the neurons, which results in the illusion of sound, or tinnitus.