What causes ringing in the ears?

08 January 2012


Morning Chris! 

I am wondering if you can help me out regarding ringing in the ears? 

I have had all of a sudden this ringing in my ears for the last few months.  I am 63 years old and it is driving me mad! Would you know what the cause is? Is there an under lying problem, and is there a way to stop this? Also is it true that if one member of the family has died from cancer of the oesophagus that it is genetic and will be passed on?  

I appreciate your help and look forward to hearing from you.  

Kind Regards


Chris - The most common reason we get ringing in our ears is because we experience a sound that's too loud. You have about 16,000 of these tiny things called hair cells in your inner ear. The inner ear contains a structure called the cochlea that quite literally turns sound wave vibrations into brainwaves - nerve energy. It does this because these little tiny hairs are set vibrating and when they vibrate, they pull open a little channel, or a pore, in the surface of the cell to which they are atached. This pore lets potassium into the cell and it changes the nerve activity in the cell. This is then signalled via the nervous system into your brain and interpreted as hearing noises.

If you're exposed to a really devastatingly loud noise, or a noise that's too loud for too long, then the tips of these hairs can break off, jamming the channel open for a while. This means more potassium will go into the cell, and so the cell continuously stays active, so you keep hearing a sound even though there's no sound there. Luckily those nerve tips or the hair tips can re-grow. But if you're exposed to really, really, really loud sounds, or a very loud sound for a very long period of time, you can actually rip away all of these so-called stereocilia, the hair cells, and the cell can die. I did read one quote that said, when you stand on the underground and a big train goes past very loudly, a handful of those cells dies every time. So over time, as you age, you lose these things, unfortunately and you do end up deaf once you get to your old age. Dave - So what causes a ringing which carries on going on for a long time? If the cell dies, would that still cause this noise? Chris - What probably happens once you get a chronic problem is that you are removing from the brain the input from the cochlea, corresponding to the particular frequency that those cells would have signalled. The brain thinks that it's gone deaf so it turns up the "amplifier". The brain listens a bit harder for the sounds it's expecting and they're not coming, so it turns it up a bit more. It's a bit like what happens when you're tuned to a radio station and it's not a very good signal - when you turn the radio up, you hear some hiss in the background. If you keep turning it up, the hiss gets louder, and louder, and louder, and that's effectively what the brain is doing, or at least that's one model of what we think the chronic problem, known as tinnitus, actually is.

Add a comment