Is there causation with tinnitus and earwax? It’s the ringing or whistling noise in your ear. It’s a strange one because it doesn’t have an external source, so it’s almost like it’s coming from your head. But there’s nothing outside of your body making the sound, so it’s pretty weird!
We will cover what causes the whistling noise and how it’s diagnosed, why your earwax may be the problem (or may not be), the effects of having tinnitus and finally ways to alleviate it via irrigation and other methods.
The ringing can originate in one ear, both ears, and even your head. And 1 in 10 UK adults have tinnitus: that’s 6 million people. Actually, in many instances, tinnitus and earwax go hand-in-hand.
What causes tinnitus?
The causes are most often from ear conditions:
- Earwax blockages
- Perforated eardrum
- Ear infections
- Meniere’s disease
- Age-related hearing loss
And sometimes people’s tinnitus can’t be linked to anything. Crummy answer I know, but it’s the truth! It has multiple origins and it isn’t yet fully understood. But it’s apparent that 2/3 of cases are linked to hearing loss, and there’s an important distinction to make here. Tinnitus is a product of hearing loss, rather than it causing your hearing difficulties (explained in section 3: Lasting effects).
So, you think you have it, and you wisely decide to book a doctor’s appointment, who will more than likely refer you to an audiologist or an ENT specialist for treatment. And honestly, the diagnosis process isn’t easy; your doctor will probably ask you an array of questions, including:
- Are you taking any medication now? (Some drug-types can cause ringing)
- Is the hearing in one or both ears?
- Does the whistling come and go, or is it permanent?
They’ll also bring up your medical record, as some conditions are linked to tinnitus like diabetes. Damaged hair cells could be the cause. You literally have thousands of them inside your ear, specifically the cochlea. The image below, courtesy of Mayo Clinic, illustrates this nicely with the spiral structure being the cochlea. The hair cells take the sound waves that travel into our ear, amazingly package them into electrical signals to be sent along nerve cells up to your brain, where we perceive sound. If our nerve cells are damaged, the electrical signals are weakened, so our perception decreases. If we cannot hear external noise well, the ringing sound from within our ears will manifest itself louder, as it isn’t masked well from the outside world.
Tinnitus and earwax. Is this the problem?
There are a lot of rather complicated reasons behind your ear whistling, but it could be as simple as your ears are clogged with wax! Hearing loss is the cause of tinnitus in many cases. And earwax blockages can cause partial hearing loss, so it’s no wonder people report their tinnitus disappears after wax removal.
One of the safest earwax removal strategies is ear irrigation, with a controlled liquid flushing process. Actually, you can read our article on Earwax Irrigation if you like. The reason for the ringing worsening is that wax will block the ear canal, causing the enhanced perception of current tinnitus. Meaning, it’s made to sound worse than it is because external noise doesn’t pass through the ear as effectively due to the wax.
Also, because earwax is a protective substance for our delicate eardrum, it traps particles of dirt and loose hair. This could also further exacerbate the blockage with a buildup of unwanted material. However, there are other tinnitus-causing effects out there: exposure to loud noises and age-related hearing loss being the most common.
Lasting effects of tinnitus
A lot of people can have very transient experiences, which will often coincide with listening to your music too loud (try not to do that!), after a concert or nightclub, or when you are congested due to a cold. But for others, it can have far-reaching consequences:
- Increased anxiety
- Lack of sleep
- Difficulty hearing
- Trouble focusing
- Negative emotional reactions
The emotional reactions is an interesting one, and very true. Because it may cause you to feel frustrated and distressed because of its lasting effects. The difficulty in concentration or trouble sleeping can cause you to feel annoyed and dispirited. Furthermore, let’s clarify the ‘difficulty hearing’ point. You see, tinnitus doesn’t actually decrease your hearing capabilities. It indirectly affects it because you lack focus: focused hearing that is. It’s distracting and you lack concentration. It’s hard to comprehend what’s communicated to you. Therefore, it may impact the quality of work you produce.
Tinnitus seems to increase anxiety because you lack control over it. You can’t stop the ringing. It feels like you can’t break free and this leads to distress and frustration. If you are in a quiet room with no distractions, you’re going to be more aware of it. An unwanted distraction don’t you think? You’re uncomfortable, missing precious hours of sleep and over time you become sleep deprived, which can have a whole raft of complications itself: high blood pressure, increased risk of stroke and diabetes.
And the thing is, there is no one distinct sound. It can be more than just the classic ringing noise. Interestingly, Hearing Link ran a survey during Tinnitus Awareness Week (organized by the British Tinnitus Association) and found a variety of sounds:
People report that some noises are worse than others. Many can just go about their day and forget about it. For others, their condition is worse and they need some therapy thechniques– let’s look at that in the last section.
Ear irrigation as a remedy
Some people said their tinnitus is worse after irrigation, but it’s very rare. The reason could possibly be that irrigation has effectively removed the wax and your perception has increased. The wax is unblocked and everything is noisier but it’s a temporary thing. Of course, if the earwax is gone and the ringing continues, you should visit your GP. And you may find your tinnitus wasn’t actually caused by a wax blockage: it may be something else.
Ear irrigation is very unlikely to worsen your tinnitus because, at the end of the day, it’s the most common ear procedure out there. But as you might expect, there are other solutions; different remedies and tips to help manage it more easily.
A remarkable adaptation of humans is the ability to overcome physiological conditions (and for life in general). So, most people that have tinnitus only find it a slight nuisance. And over time, the brain actually learns to dampen the effects, and subconsciously you are no longer aware of the ringing noise. Amazing, right!
But let’s give you some practical advice, shall we? You can manage it very effectively by reducing stress. Believe it or not, stress is the prime driver in exacerbating the noise, and there’s medical evidence to prove it. Your causations of stress will trigger it, and in turn, the ringing noise makes you feel distressed, so it’s a vicious feedback loop. But we can break the chain with many relaxation techniques. Action on Hearing Loss, a UK charity, has come up with some awesome resources for improving calmness. But lets mention just a couple:
- Sound therapy: in a quiet room noise appears louder, typically when studying or trying to sleep. You could play a variety of natural sounds, such as the birdsongs or the ocean. Perhaps you already have a playlist on your phone? There are tinnitus therapy apps available that can play such soothing sounds. Or, you could go one step simpler and just open your window to hear noises from outside. Sound therapy is a great method that helps in two ways. Firstly, it dampens the whistling noises and secondly, the noises can be very relaxing, which will help you sleep better and reduce stress: a perfect killer combination!
- Relaxation exercises: you won’t notice your tinnitus as much once you implement a relaxation regime. If you incorporate this into your daily routine, it’s likely to be highly effective. You will mentally reduce your responsiveness to the symptoms, blocking it out of your mind. And there are many ways you can achieve this. Have a read of Harvard Medical School’s article on your options. You could even try yoga classes, which comes with surplus health benefits!
The absolute best course of action to take as a first step is to visit your GP. They will more than likely refer you to an audiologist or ENT doctor. They will work with you to implement a great therapy program. I’m sure it’ll include the methods listed above, and many more effective techniques.
It seems like there could be a million and one medical causes for your buzzing. But at the end of the day, some painless natural therapies are readily available for relaxation. We can prove it with medical evidence. Or, it could be as simple as giving those ears a good flushing….
Check out the Honey Gusto Earwax Irrigation Kit here
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Torborg, L. (2018). Damaged hair cells could be the cause of your tinnitus. [image] Available at: https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/mayo-clinic-q-and-a-understanding-tinnitus/ [Accessed 9 Apr. 2019].