My ears ring when I get tired, and this week, I’m tired. A little bit like a canary in the coal mine, when I’ve overdone it, my ears start ringing, signaling me to slow down, take it easy , and take better care of myself.
Ringing in your ears, called tinnitus, affects about 50 million Americans. While some, like me, have mild or occasional ringing, others experience noise loud enough to interfere with their everyday activities, including sleep.
Tinnitus is not a disease, but a symptom, and it can be temporary or permanent. Ringing in your ears is basically a phantom noise—you’re hearing something that’s not there. It is commonly accompanied by some hearing loss, and it can be the result of your brain overcompensating for that loss in hearing.
There are many causes of tinnitus, including head injuries, ear infections, certain diseases, and even a common cold. However, hands down, the most common cause of tinnitus is loud noise. Think about the last big rock concert you attended (U2, thank you!) and remember how your ears rang when you tried to get to sleep afterward. Excessive noise exposure, whether chronic or a single loud shot or explosion, is enough to damage your hearing and cause tinnitus.
There is no cure for tinnitus. However, in some cases, dealing with the cause can alleviate the problem.
In Chinese medicine, there are a number of patterns of disharmony that can result in tinnitus. The most common is a deficiency of your Kidney system. This does not mean you have Kidney disease—your Chinese Kidney is a little bit like the foundation to your health. Your Kidney is the source of your vital substances, including the nourishing coolant of Yin and the pilot light of Yang, as well as Essence. Kidney Essence is a little like your genetics, body constitution, and mojo, all rolled into one. When your Kidney gets depleted, a common symptom is ringing in your ears.
While most Chinese medical practitioners think of Kidney depletion first, tinnitus can be caused by other patterns. If the noise in your ears sounds like loud claps or ocean waves, gets worse when you’re angry or frustrated, and you’re having signs of heat (feeling hot, thirsty, restless, irritability, constipation, insomnia, dry mouth), then your tinnitus might be from heat in the Liver and Gall Bladder organ systems.
Another pattern that might produce tinnitus is a combination of phlegm and heat. This is associated with signs of heat (see above) plus an overabundance of phlegm in your sinuses or chest, dizzy spells, and a feeling of heaviness, especially in your head. Similarly, a common cold, called Wind Heat in Chinese medicine, can cause tinnitus if your ears become congested.
You may feel like you’ve tried everything to make that infernal ringing go away or perhaps you haven’t known where to start. Here are a few things that you might try to help alleviate your tinnitus or make it a little more bearable.
Try some self-massage. In Chinese medicine it’s called Tui Na, and it feels like massage, but it focuses on specific acupuncture points and pathways. Some points to massage around your ears are the mastoid process, (which is the bony lump behind the lower half of your ears), and your TMJ, which is the hole in front of your ears when you open your mouth. Also, massaging your Kidney area, in the small of your back may be helpful.
Avoid loud sounds. No, really? Okay, we all know that standing in front of a jet engine or going to a rock concert is too loud. But any noise that makes you talk louder to be heard is too loud, including your vacuum cleaner or lawn mower. Get someone else to do those chores or get earplugs at any drugstore.
If your tinnitus is worse at night and interferes with your sleep, try some white noise. This can be as simple as turning your radio onto the static in between stations. You can also use light music or a recording of the ocean or rain.
Pay attention to whether or not the ringing gets worse when you’re stressed or run down. If so, do what you need to take care of yourself.
Skip the caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. All of these can aggravate tinnitus.
Check out any medications you’re taking. Aspirin is a big offender, here, commonly causing tinnitus. Read the literature on any prescription meds you’re taking to see if tinnitus is a side effect. If so, talk to your doctor to see if there are alternatives that don’t cause your ears to ring.
If you suffer from allergies, get them under control. Chronic phlegm can obstruct your ears and cause ringing.
Avoid getting overly fatigued. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and down time during the week.
Work with a practitioner of Chinese medicine. Depending on the cause, acupuncture and Chinese medicine may help alleviate your ringing.
Get your hearing checked. Do this to rule out physical causes of tinnitus.
When my tinnitus got loud enough, I mentioned it to my regular doctor, who sent me to have my hearing checked. There was hearing loss in one ear, indicating that something was up. To make a long story short, I had a small, benign tumor pressing on my auditory nerve. I had a very fancy radiation procedure, and the tumor has stopped growing, and over time will shrivel up. The end result is that when I get tired, my ears ring.