November 8th, 2010
10:04 AM ET

Why do I hear whistling in both of my ears?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Mondays, it's pediatrician Dr. Jennifer Shu.

Question asked by Chris of Tewksbury, New Jersey:

I am a 62-year-old male. For over a year now I have been having a whistling in both of my ears. It goes on 24/7 and I am at the end of my rope. Please help me.

Expert answer

Thanks for your question. Having a ringing sound in the ears (known as tinnitus) is very common and affects about 10 to 15 percent of the population. It is usually short-lived and can get better or eventually go away on its own. This ringing may occur after hearing loud noises, such as going to a concert.

However, a noise in the ears that lasts for longer periods can have many different causes and may be extremely annoying as well as difficult to treat. To better help you with this aggravating situation, I consulted Dr. Aaron Rogers, an otolaryngologist (ear/nose/throat specialist) in Atlanta, who shared the following information about long-term tinnitus and possible treatments.

Rogers reports that the most common type of tinnitus consists of a high-pitched steady buzzing or ringing in the ears. Usually it is always there but gets louder in quiet situations or with anxiety and tends to be present on both sides. This type is thought to be "idiopathic" (meaning there is no known cause) and is often found accompanying a hearing loss, especially of high-frequency sounds.

The best we can tell, this kind of tinnitus actually originates in the brain, not the ears, so that a person perceives a ringing noise that other people cannot hear. One way to think of it is that the brain is trying to fill in what the ears are no longer hearing.

Other types of tinnitus may involve a pulsing, clicking, or low-pitched roaring in the ears. These types are relatively rare but are sometimes associated with middle ear muscle spasms, high pressure of the fluid in the brain, or even blood vessel malformations.

Causes of tinnitus may also include problems with the TMJ (temporomandibular joint) area and muscles in the head and face. Medications such as high-dose aspirin therapy can create tinnitus which may be reversible once the medicine is stopped. Insomnia can make tinnitus worse in some people, and severe tinnitus may also be associated with depression and stress.

Having an evaluation by an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist can be helpful to test for hearing loss and inspecting the ear anatomy for any suspicious things like a hair or other foreign body in the ear canal or a hole in the ear drum. The specialist can also check for some of the more rare causes of tinnitus and may recommend an imaging study of the head.

The treatment for tinnitus depends on the underlying cause. A hearing aid can be helpful if hearing loss is involved. Dealing with depression and insomnia are also advised. One treatment for common idiopathic tinnitus is called "masking," which gives a distractor noise (such as a white noise machine, ceiling fan, radio in the corner of a room, etc.) to the ears.

For people who do not respond to regular masking, an intensive treatment called tinnitus retraining therapy may be recommended. This therapy involves custom noise-generating devices (which simulate the tinnitus or produce white noise) that are "always on" in an attempt to retrain the brain to block out a particular sound. Biofeedback, acupuncture, and cognitive-behavioral therapy may also be helpful.

I hope you will consult with your physician for the best treatment for your condition. Good luck!

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