Q: Is there anything I can do to get rid of this noise in my ear?
-- R.S., Orlando, Fla.
A: Noises in the ears can be very troublesome, especially at night, when there are no other distractions to cover up the sound.
The medical term for the perception of abnormal head or ear noises with no external source is tinnitus. People with tinnitus "hear" ringing, roaring, rustling or crackling, but the source of such noise is inside your head, not outside.
A certain amount of intermittent periods of mild, high-pitched tinnitus that lasts for a few minutes is common in normal-hearing people and should not warrant concern. But a persistent tinnitus is more serious.
If your tinnitus is persistent and continuous, it can interfere not only with your sleep, but also with your ability to concentrate. Overall, it can be very stressful. More importantly, it can often signal other problems, such as sensory hearing loss.
Tinnitus is a common condition, especially for people between the ages of 40 and 80. For many, it is a minor irritant, but for some, it affects their ability to lead a normal life. Insomnia, inability to concentrate and depression have all been reported to accompany the condition.
There are a number of known causes of tinnitus, the most common one being taking too much aspirin or other anti-inflammatory drugs..
Tinnitus can also be a symptom of damage to the ear by infection, tumors, certain drugs and blast injury. Other disorders such as anemia, hypertension, arteriosclerosis, low thyroid levels or head injury may also be the cause.
Steady tinnitus is less serious than pulsed sound (beep, beep, beep) tinnitus, which may signal an abnormality of neighboring blood vessels. This form of tinnitus may require magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) to locate the damaged blood vessel.
If tinnitus occurs in only one ear, you hear your heart beating in the ear or you sense a rapid loss of hearing or dizziness along with the tinnitus, you may have a condition that needs immediate attention.
Unfortunately, even with the most sophisticated medical examinations, you can't always identify and therefore directly treat an underlying disorder causing the tinnitus. And what works for one won't work for others. But I suggest that you try a few things to help make the tinnitus more tolerable.
The most important "treatment" is to avoid exposure to excessive noise and other agents or factors that may damage the hearing organs and make it worse.
Playing soft background music or other "white noise" can be quite effective in masking the tinnitus noise. Often, a hearing aid can amplify external sounds to drown out the tinnitus.
Many drugs have been tried with no consistent success. Antidepressants such as notriptyline at bedtime work about as well as anything.
For more information, call the American Tinnitus Association at (503) 248-9985.