Can You Hear Me Now? Or Do You Just Get a Ringing or Buzzing Noise?

06/20/2011 02:22 pm ET | Updated Aug 20, 2011

You just had a great workout, fueled by the new playlist on your iPod. As you leave the gym, you take off your headphones and... ring! Your ears buzz. Or hiss. Or rumble. It's called tinnitus and almost everyone deals with it from time to time. It's usually a temporary annoyance -- a ringing in the ears after exposure to loud noises -- but for some, the ringing never stops.

The American Tinnitus Association estimates one in five Americans suffer from this condition -- that's roughly 50 million people. More than a quarter of them experience such severe symptoms, they seek medical attention. For two million Americans, tinnitus is so crippling, normal daily activities prove impossible.

It's still unclear what exactly causes tinnitus, but it is commonly associated with exposure to loud noise and with head or neck trauma. In the case of injury, this disorder can be coupled with vertigo, headaches or memory loss. In both scenarios, damage to sensors in your ears that transmit sound messages to your brain lead to that annoying, sometimes ceaseless ringing. Other causes include hypothyroidism, some tumors involving the ear, toxicities from some medications (for instance, aspirin, some antibiotics, diuretics and chemotherapeutic drugs), as well as wax build-up.

Step Away From the Speaker

Those sensors actually are tiny hair cells, called cilia, in your inner ear. They help translate vibrations when they arrive in your inner ear into sound. They pass information through the auditory nerve to your brain, which decodes the vibrations and tells you what you're hearing. Damaged cilia complicates matters -- they send wrong signals to the brain, almost like an error message. Your brain interprets that message as tinnitus -- ranging from a ringing noise to a rumble in your ear or in your head.

Unlike other recuperative cells in the body, cilia don't recover from trauma. Researchers hope to figure out how to regenerate these cells, but for now, they can't be repaired. That means, if you rock out and suffer hearing loss from too-loud headphones or from standing by a speaker at a concert, the damage can be permanent -- and so can your tinnitus symptoms.

So what is too loud? Sound (intensity or volume) is measured in decibels (dB). Generally speaking, pop in those earplugs for anything more than 85 dB. That's also the recommended peak volume for workers in loud environments without ear protection, advises the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). When music or noise exceeds 90 dB, it can cause irreparable hearing loss in just minutes.

To better understand how raucous 90 dB is, consider this: a ticking watch is 20 dB; rainfall can be 50 dB; and a blow dryer is 100 dB. That screaming child on the airplane? 110 dB. The stereo speaker at a concert runs from 90 dB to 120 dB - so if you frequent heavy metal shows, invest in earplugs.

Treatment Options

There is no cure for tinnitus, but it can be managed. Sound therapy or masking is a common strategy; it conceals the ringing or hissing with another noise like a fan or even a hearing aid.

In a study conducted at the University of Texas, Dallas, researchers exposed rats to a clamor, triggering tinnitus symptoms. They then counterbalanced the assumed ringing tone in the rats' brains with higher- and lower-pitch sounds while electrically stimulating the vagus nerve in the rats' neck. Doing this "re-tuned" the rat brains, calming the tinnitus symptoms.

This concept of fighting noise with noise has a way to go. It also doesn't appear to remedy emotional issues associated with tinnitus like anxiety and depression.

But the American Tinnitus Association says the studies are getting better, and more funding is going toward human research of this malady. A recent study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences sought to lessen disorder symptoms by allowing subjects to choose enjoyable music to listen to for a year; researchers then modified the music's tone to a pitch level in a different frequency than the ringing sound associated with tinnitus. After listening to the music regularly, subjects in the target study group a year later reported a significant decrease in the intensity of their tinnitus symptoms.

More Than the Ring

Some people can block out tinnitus' ringing -- but for others it can be debilitating, with the cacophony, including a hissing and buzzing, interfering with day-to-day functions, reports Ear and Hearing: The Official Journal of the American Auditory Society. A separate study in the same journal speculated that chronic sufferers, who misinterpret their symptoms, would be affected by a reduced quality of life. The study confirmed the hypothesis, revealing that the fear associated with the tinnitus symptoms impairs patients' standard of living.

Protect Your Ears

The good news is, while tinnitus is not completely preventable, you can protect your hearing.

Indeed, there are growing concerns that as the nation's population ages, hearing woes -- including tinnitus -- may become an even greater health concern. All those years of exposure to amplified music, especially the then-new phenomenon of rock'n'roll has left a country in which almost half of the older population, aka those ubiquitous baby boomers, may suffer significant hearing loss.

Because it's such a common hobby these days and can be a rewarding but ear-challenging business, music fans and musicians can put themselves at risk of hearing problems, including tinnitus, advocates warn. They add that military personnel, particularly those who work with munitions or heavy equipment and those, of course, who are deployed in the many combat areas across the globe, also can be at risk of tinnitus and hearing woes.

Here are tips from the American Tinnitus Association:

1. If you are a yard away and can't hear what someone is saying, move some place quieter.
2. If you will be exposed to noise louder than 85 dB (street traffic sounds, on average), pack earplugs or earmuffs.
3. If you walk by loud machinery on the street (leaf blowers, jackhammers, construction equipment) cross the street or cover your ears.

I'm not just giving you an earful, tinnitus can be a problem that can be prevented with a simple set of ear plugs. And turn down the iPod, MP3 player, radio, TV and other devices. Yes, the tunes are great, but your ears deserve better.