Why do some people hear a constant, nagging ringing in their ears? For insight into this condition, known medically as tinnitus, we turned to Dr. Michael Ruckenstein, an ear, nose and throat specialist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia.
TINNITUS IS A condition in which a person hears a constant ringing, buzzing or other steady sound. One belief is that the condition stems from some sort of malfunction of the inner ear. This malfunction causes transmission of a signal to the brain that is interpreted as the phantom sound, usually a ringing.
There are a number of theories that attempt to explain why this tinnitus signal is produced. Most people think it is the result of an instability in the inner ear, a very dynamic structure that is constantly being stimulated. When the inner ear become unstable, the effect is akin to a radio coming in and out of signal.
This malfunction may not be detectable on a routine hearing test, so some patients may have “normal” hearing yet suffer tinnitus. Others have detectable hearing loss associated with the ringing sound.
In most cases, the brain learns to tune out the ringing by a process called sensory adaptation, in which any routine, meaningless signal is adapted to and ignored after a period of time. The best example of this process is of someone who lives near a train station. After living there a while, they don’t notice the trains going by.
Sometimes after a rock concert or other loud event, people experience temporary tinnitus. But this usually resolves fairly quickly.
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