Whooshing, ringing, buzzing, pulsing, humming, beating, roaring. If you hear noises like these when there is no actual sound source, you might be one of the 10 to 15 percent of Americans with tinnitus, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery.
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"Although we don't fully understand tinnitus, we think it's actually a brain issue rather than simply an ear problem," says neurotologist Elina Kari, MD, assistant professor of surgery at UC San Diego Health. "The hearing pathway starts with the ear and goes up to your brain stem. And the dorsal cochlear nucleus, located on the brain stem, has been implicated in tinnitus."
Not everyone has the same kind of tinnitus — there are two types. "People with subjective tinnitus hear a constant high-pitched noise, like a whir or crickets," Dr. Kari says. Subjective tinnitus has no known cause.
On the other hand: "Those with pulsatile tinnitus hear a clicking sound associated with the contraction of muscles or a pulsing like your heartbeat," Dr. Kari says. Pulsatile tinnitus has specific known causes, such as anemia, high blood pressure or an ear infection.
Some people have tinnitus in both ears, while only one ear is affected in others. The noise can be constant or intermittent. And although tinnitus might feel unbearable, here's the thing: "While it is extremely common, only a minority of people actually suffer from it," Dr. Kari says. Most just grin and bear it.
Dr. Kari likens the experience of tinnitus to the sensation of clothing against your skin. "You are constantly feeling your clothes, but it doesn't drive you crazy," she says. "Often, the best solution for tinnitus is to ignore it and learn to live with it."
Of course, when it's bugging the heck out of you, that's easier said than done. Luckily, we have at-home tinnitus remedies that can bring relief.
1. Add Background Noise
The fastest and simplest way to help tinnitus go away is by avoiding silence. Turn on music, the TV, a fan or a white noise machine to distract you from the ringing in your ears.
"You can even get earplugs that emit a low level of white noise," Dr. Kari says.
Try These Earplugs With White Noise
2. Try Meditation
Mood disorders are commonly associated with tinnitus. According to a July 2019 study in Otolaryngology, Head & Neck Surgery, one-third of people with tinnitus are also depressed.
"If you are bothered by tinnitus, it can lead to anxiety and depression," Dr. Kari says. "Then it becomes a positive feedback loop: The more tinnitus you have, the more your mood is disordered; the more your mood is disordered, the worse your tinnitus becomes. You have to break that cycle."
Finding your zen is one way to do so. Dr. Kari is a fan of 10-minute daily guided meditations, using an app like Calm or Headspace.
"Some people think they need to empty their minds in order to meditate, which can be stressful if you have tinnitus," Dr. Kari says. "But guided meditation is helpful in managing tinnitus — as well as improving your mood and sleep, and promoting a general state of wellbeing."
3. Get Enough Sleep
It's no surprise that tinnitus can affect your rest. After all, it's hard to snooze if you can't shut off the whirring in your ears. But it's worth the effort to get some solid shut-eye.
"Sleep loss leads to higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can exacerbate tinnitus," Dr. Kari says.
Meditating at bedtime and placing a white noise machine on your bedside table can help you reach dreamland sooner and sleep more deeply.
What About Avoiding Certain Foods?
Although no specific foods or beverages have been scientifically proven to worsen tinnitus, feel free to experiment and see if dietary changes have any effect. Each case of tinnitus is individualized, so the contributing factors may differ from person to person.
"If you have an anxiety component to your tinnitus, you may want to eliminate caffeine, which is a stimulant and might exacerbate anxiety," Dr. Kari says. "Other people say alcohol makes their tinnitus worse."
A November 2017 study in Drug and Alcohol Dependence suggests that excessive alcohol consumption increases depression, which in turn can intensify tinnitus.
What About Ear Drops?
When you put drops into your ear canal, the liquid slides in as far as the ear drum, located in front of the middle ear.
"But if you have tinnitus, the problem is usually much deeper than the middle ear and often the brain is involved as well," Dr. Kari says. "So ear drops won't do anything."
What About Jaw or Neck Exercises?
People with TMJ have pain in the joint that attaches the jawbone to the skull. While it's typically considered an oral issue, severe TMJ can affect your ears, too. "We don't have a good explanation for why this happens, but some people with TMJ experience pressure, discomfort and ringing in their ears," Dr. Kari says.
Still, even if your tinnitus is caused by TMJ, jaw or neck exercises aren't likely to help. A January 2016 review in Physical Therapy found no high-quality evidence that they are effective.
What About Lipoflavonoid?
Here's the scoop on this popular homeopathic remedy for tinnitus: "Lipoflavonoid is an antioxidant family naturally derived from fruits and veggies and known to be neuroprotective," Dr. Kari says. "There are many studies showing that some of these compounds can be neurogenerative for the ear."
Sounds promising, but Dr. Kari's not sold. "When people ask about lipoflavanoid, I usually shrug," she says. "Are you getting anything better out of this supplement than out of drinking a naturally derived smoothie or eating a bunch of leafy greens?" (In other words, you're better off reaching for an apple or choosing a salad for lunch.)
Then there's the steep price tag. "If it was cheap, I would say go ahead, there's no harm in trying — but a one month's supply costs $100 or more," Dr. Kari says. "I tend not to push supplements because I don't think they're that effective."
And although side effects are rare, a small September 2016 study in the Journal of Audiology revealed that some people taking lipoflavanoid for tinnitus reported stomach pain, bleeding, skin reactions, weight gain, trouble sleeping and blurred vision.
What About Vitamins?
Vitamins D, B1, B2 (aka riboflavin) and B12 are often hailed as tinnitus cures. Here's what the research says: A small August 2021 study in PLOS One found that 51 percent of people with tinnitus had a vitamin D deficiency, compared to 22 percent in a control group. In April 2016, another small study in Noise & Health found that people with tinnitus had low levels of vitamin B12, and their symptoms improved after six weeks of B12 injections.
But before you pop a supplement, hear this: "I have never seen vitamin deficiency as a contributing factor for tinnitus," Dr. Kari says. "You can check with your primary care doctor to see if you have any deficiencies, but I would not self-treat with vitamins because they can lead to toxicity and have negative side effects."
What About Vicks VapoRub?
Nix the Vicks.
"I have not heard this to be effective, and I would be careful because applying it in your ears can lead to toxic effects," Dr. Kari says.
When to See a Doctor for Tinnitus
If you have pulsatile tinnitus or if your tinnitus is in only one ear, get evaluated by your doc. It could be indicative of an underlying — and don't worry, likely benign — health condition. (Case in point: A December 2014 study in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care found that 54 percent of people with impacted ear wax experienced tinnitus. Your doctor can easily remove the gunk.)
Pulsatile tinnitus might also reflect hearing loss. "The brain is used to getting a certain amount of noise input," Dr. Kari says. "When that input decreases due to hearing loss, the brain makes up its own sensations." In that case, hearing aids (or cochlear implants if you are severely hearing impaired) will often help.
If you have subjective tinnitus and it's really driving you bonkers, you can ask your provider about new treatment protocols, such as a brain retraining therapy called neuromonics. It involves wearing a sound machine programmed to match the rhythm of your tinnitus.
"This multi-modality treatment teaches your brain not to care about the ringing by habituating it to the sound," Dr. Kari says. "Although it works, it is pretty intensive. It's also not covered by insurance and very few hearing centers offer it."
Either way, if you're concerned, it's worth calling up your doctor if only for peace of mind. "The most effective treatment for tinnitus is reassurance," Dr. Kari says. "While a minority of people will need ongoing treatment, the majority just need to hear that they are OK — that they don't have a malignant brain tumor and they're not going deaf." Hopefully knowing there's nothing to worry about will quell the anxiety that's likely driving your symptoms.
And if you've gotten your tinnitus under control and then it comes back, try not to freak out. "Rehab from tinnitus isn't linear — you'll have good and bad days," Dr. Kari says. "If you go through a period where you are stressed and not sleeping well, you might notice it flares. Once you are feeling better, the tinnitus should improve."
Is This an Emergency?
- American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery: "Tinnitus Guidelines"
- Otolaryngology, Head & Neck Surgery: "Depression in Patients with Tinnitus: A Systematic Review"
- Drug and Alcohol Dependence: "Alcohol and depression: Evidence from the 2014 health survey for England"
- Journal of Audiology: "Survey on the Effectiveness of Dietary Supplements to Treat Tinnitus"
- PLOS One: "The role of vitamin D in subjective tinnitus—A case-control study"
- Noise & Health: "Therapeutic role of Vitamin B12 in patients of chronic tinnitus: A pilot study"
- Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care: "Earwax Impaction: Symptoms, Predisposing Factors and Perception among Nigerians"