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What Is This God-Awful Ringing in My Ears?

Make it stop.
Make it stop. Photo: Getty Images

Sometimes I’ll hear a really high-pitched sound and nothing else. What’s going on?

This is technically tinnitus, or the perception of a sound that isn’t there, says Daniel Jethanamest, MD, the director of otology, neurotology, and skull-base surgery at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. But it’s not the chronic tinnitus that seems to affect people as the result of hearing damage or age-related hearing loss.

No, this is more like you’re in a ‘60s Bond movie and a villain has deployed a high-frequency sound machine that renders you incapacitated until it’s turned off. Then you’re fine until the next time it happens, a few months later.

“It doesn’t mean anything bad and it’s very common,” Dr. Jethanamest says. He thought everyone experienced this phenomenon until he dug up a 2011 paper in which a group of Israeli researchers sought to establish its prevalence. Among 62 people without hearing problems, 76 percent of them said they’d had at least one episode of sudden brief unilateral tapering tinnitus, or SBUTT, in the past. (They concocted the name themselves.)

In another survey of 74 victims of SBUTT, the researchers found that the average person experienced 1.2 episodes per month, and it was almost twice as common in the right ear versus the left.

These SBUTT incidents typically last for a few seconds, whereas people with chronic tinnitus often deal with the ringing sound for a minute or longer and experience it more frequently than every few weeks. Understandably, this can be annoying enough to pay a visit to an ENT, where a doctor will check if your hearing is okay.

But what causes these phantom sounds? No one knows for sure, but there are a few theories. One involves the small muscles that attach to the three bones in the ear. These bones conduct sound vibrations, which get transferred into the inner ear and converted into neural impulses to the brain; the nearby muscles can help dampen sounds that are too loud, Dr. Jethanamest says. It’s possible that if one of those muscles spasms — kind of like an eyelid twitch — it could pull tightly, making your ear feel “full” and blocking external sounds. You hear a high-pitched sound, and then the spasm stops.

Another theory involves misfiring neurons of the small sensory cells in the inner ear, known as hair cells. These cells move in reaction to sound waves, which trigger the release of electrical signals to your brain, which it interprets as sound. If one part of this production line is messed up, you might hear something weird. “Maybe there’s just some slight change for half a second and some of those firings are a little bit off or changed a little bit in the neural activity, and that’s what creates that one-second thing that you hear or you feel,” Dr. Jethanamest says.

What Causes Ringing in the Ears?