It began one night with a high-pitched squeal, one annoying and persistent enough to prevent me from sleeping. When I asked my husband where he thought it was coming from, he said he didn't hear it, which made sense once I realized the sound was coming from my left ear. Instantly, I guessed what it was: tinnitus. Commonly referred to as ringing in the ears, tinnitus involves the perception of sound when there isn’t an external source and can include a buzzing, hissing, whistling, whooshing or clicking tone. It can be temporary (after attending a loud concert, for example) or chronic.
And it's a surprisingly common affliction. More than 50 million people in the U.S. have experienced tinnitus, and about 20 percent of those who have it report that it negatively affects their quality of life, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. Indeed, tinnitus can have substantial ripple effects on how a person feels and functions. During the day the condition can cause sufferers to have trouble focusing or thinking clearly; at night, it can lead to trouble sleeping, notes Quinton Gopen, an otolaryngologist at UCLA Medical Center.
But a ringing or buzzing in your ear can also be a sign of problems you shouldn't try to ignore. If you have the sensation in one ear, as I did, such unilateral tinnitus could signal a (usually benign) tumor on the acoustic nerve. If you hear a noise that pulses like a heartbeat (what’s called pulsatile tinnitus) in one or both ears, the pattern could stem from blood vessel abnormalities or vascular malformations. In either case, see an ear, nose, throat (ENT) doctor (aka an otolaryngologist) who may order imaging tests, such as an MRI or CT scan, to suss out these problems, Gopen says.