Is This Normal? My ears won't stop ringing, and it's giving me panic attacks
There's good news and bad news.
You’ve got embarrassing, tricky, bizarre, and otherwise unusual life questions, we’ve got answers. Welcome to Is This Normal?—a no-nonsense, no-judgment advice column from HelloGiggles. To get to the bottom of these questions, we’ll tap a few experts to find out exactly how normal (or not) something is.
Dear Is This Normal?,
I am in my 40s, and ever since I became pregnant with my seven-year-old son, I have heard a loud, high-pitched ringing sound in my ears off and on. In the last year or so, the sound has gotten louder and much more constant. It’s driving me absolutely crazy! I have brought this up to both my primary care physician and the ear, nose, and throat doctor that she referred me to, but both of them seemed to downplay my experience and say that there’s really nothing I can do about it. Sometimes the ringing is so loud that it distracts me from my work. There have even been times when I was at the point of having panic attacks since I couldn’t make the sound stop. Am I the only one who is experiencing this?? Help!
— Make It Stop, Melissa
Dear, Make It Stop, Melissa,
Do you want the good news or the bad news first? Let’s start with the good news: You are not alone with this infuriating experience. In fact, I think the experience of ringing in the ears, or what the medical community calls tinnitus, is much more common than most people realize. According to the American Tinnitus Association, over 50 million Americans experience some form of tinnitus. For some people, tinnitus can sound high-pitched, like what you have experienced, or for others, it can sound more like hissing, buzzing, or swooshing.
The bad news is that many medical professionals seem to dismiss the extensive ramifications of having tinnitus or simply offer little hope for how to manage the difficulty of the experience. Elane, age 56, shares her experience with asking doctors for help with tinnitus: “NO ONE in any medical capacity has ever taken [my] tinnitus seriously. All the audiologists, ENTs, and other doctors just dismiss it and say that no one knows the cause or origin or [provide] any treatments… The bottom line has always been like, ‘Yeah, it sucks, but your hearing is really the priority, so focus on THAT since we can’t do anything about the tinnitus anyway.’” Sara, in her 40s, like you, has had a similarly frustrating experience: “My tinnitus has never really been addressed. When I’ve brought it up, my doctors have dismissed it.”
At this point, even though you may feel some comfort in knowing you are not alone, you are probably wondering: Why is this issue so easily dismissed by doctors?
I went to the only Tinnitus care provider I could find in my area (an area of the country known for top-notch medical care, by the way!), Judith Bergeron, founder of Beauport Hearing Care and Hearing Specialist, for some answers.
Bergeron shares: “Medical professionals are not typically trained on the evaluation and treatment of tinnitus. No insurances pay for tinnitus treatment, and so therefore, most medical practitioners will not treat it. While there is no ‘cure,’ treatments have been demonstrated in research to provide benefit and relief. Treatment methods vary because the exact cause or causes of tinnitus are believed to vary from person to person. Treatment is often a matter of trial and error from a list of strategies that have been known to be effective for people suffering from tinnitus.”
As someone who has been experiencing tinnitus myself for over 15 years, I certainly can relate to the feeling of the constant ringing sound driving you crazy, and that is absolutely exacerbated by the stress of the fact that doctors don’t take the experience seriously. I have also found it to be very interesting that times of hormonal change and extreme stress have been linked to the onset or worsening of tinnitus. The Women’s International Pharmacy explains, “The onset of tinnitus in women seems to be particularly related to periods of hormone variability. It can be triggered by PMS, perimenopause, menopause and pregnancy. Menopausal symptoms such as sweating, hot flashes and mood changes may correlate with tinnitus.” If there are two things that can’t ever be separated out from the lives of women in my opinion, it’s hormones and stress, which means we all need to speak up more to have our conditions taken seriously.
When reflecting upon whether times of stress or hormonal change correlated with the onset or worsening of tinnitus symptoms, every woman that I spoke with found a connection.
For example, Kim, age 44, says the onset occurred when she was going through fertility treatments to conceive her second child. Her symptoms have recently gotten worse as she has entered perimenopause. Susan’s tinnitus began six years ago during an extremely stressful time in her life that included a cross-country move, the sale of one house and purchase or another, and the 90th birthday of her mother with whom she has a difficult relationship with. Shelly shares that her tinnitus came on gradually, but that it intensified before, during, and after menopause.
I’m so sorry to hear that your tinnitus has brought you to the point of panic attack. The mental and emotional challenges of tinnitus are very real. I often explain the experience as being likened to a fire alarm going off in my head at all times. Shelly says, “The soundtrack to my life is a high-pitched shrill ringing.” Star Trek icon, William Shatner, even contemplated suicide in response to his tinnitus.
I hope we all can find resources to help us manage our experiences with tinnitus because management techniques do exist if you can seek out the right kind of help. As Bergeron, points out, “Benefits include lowering the perception of the head sounds or reduced attention given to the tinnitus head sounds. Hearing amplification is reported to reduce the tinnitus sound for more than 40% of tinnitus patients that have a hearing loss. A small number even report that amplification makes the symptom disappear completely. Meditation to reduce stress and various nutritional supplements have also been given credit for successful mitigation of the tinnitus noise.” There are options out there for us, though the approach to managing tinnitus certainly does not seem to be a one-size-fits-all approach.
You are not alone, Make It Stop, Melissa, and you are not going crazy. With a bit of research and dedication to finding the right medical professional to help, you can have a better experience with tinnitus. This is a medical condition that clearly needs more attention and research, and women don’t have to settle for living their lives this way. We’ve got this!
If your tinnitus is causing you distress, call 1-800-634-8978, if you need general guidance on tinnitus management and seeking care. If you’re experiencing depression and/or anxiety, call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.