What’s That Ringing in My Ears and Why Do I Hear It? Part I

Do you hear noise in your ears when there shouldn’t be a sound? That may be tinnitus. Tinnitus, often called ringing in the ears, is the perception of a sound not present in the environment and can actually sound like a ringing, whistling, buzzing or just about any other type of sound.

Tinnitus is correlated with hearing loss and damage to the auditory system and as such, occurs much more frequently in men. Reports vary, but approximately 60-75 percent of all reported cases of tinnitus occur in men. This is likely due to the higher levels of occupational noise, greater tendency towards recreational noise, and reduced habits of wearing ear protection that exist in men.

Turn Down the Volume!
In short, we are exposed to more noise and do less to protect ourselves from it. Noise causes auditory damage and hearing loss, and this damage is responsible for tinnitus – both the short term ringing you get after the concert and the chronic ringing that can make it hard to sleep or concentrate.

The most obvious way to prevent tinnitus is to avoid excessive noise exposure. The three ways to limit exposure are through changes to loudness, time or distance. Total damage is related to loudness and duration of exposure. The louder the sound, the less time you can safely be exposed before damage occurs. For example the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guideline suggests eight hours maximum at 90 dBA (the sound of a train whistle at 500 feet) but 30 minutes or less at 110 dBA (the sound of a power saw at three feet).

Often the loudness, exposure duration, and the distance from the sound source are dictated by the constraints of the environment (e.g. a job) and not by personal preference, so we often have to take other measures to protect our hearing. The most common way is with hearing protection. Many commercially available hearing protectors such as foam or silicone earplugs are inexpensive and effective at blocking out a large amount of sound.

Unfortunately, these protectors also tend to block out most of sounds we need to communicate. If communication is key in noisy situations, one option is to use musician’s ear plugs, or ear plugs with filters that more evenly reduce sounds across all frequencies.

This is the first part of two parts. In Part II, we’ll talk about managing and treating tinnitus if you already have it.

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