Tinnitus isn’t limited to just the ringing in your ears – it could be a crackle, a hum, or a rumble. Read on to discover more about the symptoms of tinnitus and how to recognize them.
Ever hear crackling, buzzing, or thumping sounds that seem to come from nowhere? If you have hearing aids, it can mean that they need to be adjusted or aren’t properly fitted. But if you don’t have hearing aids…well, we don’t mean to go all horror movie, but those sounds might just be coming from inside your ear!
Don’t have a Van Gogh moment – there’s no need to panic. Even though we mostly think of our ears in terms of what we see on the outside, there’s more than meets the eye – or in this care, the ear. Here are some of the more common noises you might hear inside your ears, and what they may indicate is happening. Though most are harmless (and temporary), it’s a good idea to see your doctor or talk to a hearing specialist if any of these noises are persistent, painful, or otherwise impeding your quality of life.
What Does It Mean When I Hear Vibrations and Crackling in my Ear?
Vibrations in the ear are typically a telltale sign of tinnitus. Technically speaking, tinnitus is the medical term for when someone hears abnormal noises, like vibrations, in their ears that do not come from any outside sources. Most people will refer to it as a ringing in the ears and it manifests across a spectrum – from barely there to debilitating.
What’s Causing the Snap, Crackle, and Pop in my Ear?
We can tell you one thing – it’s not the Rice Krispies. When the pressure in your ears changes – whether from altitude, going underwater, or just yawning – you may hear crackling or popping sounds. These sounds are caused by a tiny part of your ear called the eustachian tube. The crackling is these mucus-lined passageways opening up, allowing air and fluid to circulate and equalize the pressure in your ears.
It’s an automatic process, but sometimes – like if you have inflammation from allergies, a cold, or an ear infection – your eustachian tubes can literally get gummed up from the overabundance of mucus in your system (remember, your ears, nose, and throat or all connected). In severe cases where decongestant sprays, chicken soup, or antibiotics don’t provide relief, a blockage may require surgical intervention. If you’re experiencing persistent ear pain or pressure and haven’t been able to find any relief, you should see your doctor immediately or talk to a hearing specialist to get a diagnosis.
Is the Ringing or Buzzing in my Ear Tinnitus?
Again, if you have hearing aids, you might hear these kinds of sounds for a number of reasons: the hearing aids aren’t sitting properly within your ears, the volume is too high, or your batteries are running low. But if you don’t have hearing aids and you’re hearing this type of sound, it could be due to excess earwax.
It makes sense that too much wax could make it hard to hear and cause itchiness or even inner ear infections, but how can earwax make a sound? If it is touching your eardrum, it can actually inhibit the eardrum’s ability to function, which is what causes the buzzing or ringing. The good news is earwax issues are easily fixed: you can go to a hearing specialist and have the excess wax professionally removed. Just remember, though – it’s never a good idea to try DIY methods for removing earwax, since that could make matters much worse. Q-tips tend to push wax even further into your ears and compound the problem, while remedies like an ear candle – a cone made of wax that you stick in your ear and light on fire in hopes of drawing out earwax – can land you in the hospital.
And yes, excessive, persistent ringing or buzzing is indicative of tinnitus. (Even buzzing from excessive earwax counts as a form of tinnitus.) Keep in mind that tinnitus isn’t itself a disease or disorder; instead, it’s a symptom of something else is happening with your health. While it could be as simple as wax buildup, tinnitus is also associated with conditions like anxiety and depression. Diagnosing and treating the underlying health problem can help relieve tinnitus, so you should speak to a hearing specialist to learn more about ways to relieve your symptoms.
What Are the Strange Rumblings in my Ear?
This next symptom is less common than others – and if you can hear it, you’re the one making the sound happen. Sometimes, if you have a really big yawn you can hear a low rumble in your ears. That rumble is the sound of tiny muscles inside your ears contracting in order to provide damage control on sounds you make: They turn down the volume on yawning, chewing, and even your own voice.
We’re not saying you chew too loudly – it’s just that those sounds occur so close to your ears and so frequently that the noise level would be damaging without these muscles. (And since never chewing or speaking isn’t a good option, we’ll stick with the muscles.) In extremely rare cases, some people can control one of these muscles—the tensor tympani—and produce that rumble at will. In other cases, people suffer from tympani muscle spasms caused by tonic tensor tympani syndrome, or TTTS. Studies have shown that TTTS occurs frequently in people with tinnitus and those suffering from hyperacusis, which is a sensitivity to specific sound volumes and frequencies.
What Causes a Fluttering Sound in my Ear?
Have you ever felt a flutter in your arms or legs after a workout? Those flutters are usually the result of a muscle spasm, and it’s no different from the fluttering you hear in your ears. Middle ear myoclonus, also known as MEM tinnitus, is a condition that impacts the aforementioned tensor tympani muscle and the stapedius muscle in your middle ear. Since this is a muscle condition, muscle relaxers and anticonvulsants are typically used as a first-round treatment to bring the fluttering under control. Inner ear surgery to correct the condition is an option if the medications don’t work, but success varies from procedure to procedure.
Why Are my Ears Drumming, Thumping, and Pulsing so Much?
The easy answer would be that you’re enjoying a night out at the club and that sound you hear is just the electronic dance music pumping through the PA – but we doubt you’d be reading this article if you’re hanging out at a dance club.
Instead, if you sometimes feel like you’re hearing your heartbeat thump inside your ears, you’re probably right. Some of the body’s largest veins run very close to your ears, and if your heart rate’s up – whether from a tough workout, big job interview, or a medical condition like high blood pressure – your ears will pick up the sound of your pulse.
This is called pulsatile tinnitus, and unlike other forms of tinnitus, it’s one that other people can hear. Pulsatile tinnitus is easy for a hearing specialist to diagnose since they can listen in on your ears and hear the thumping and pulsing as well. While it’s totally normal to experience pulsatile tinnitus when your heart’s racing, it should not be something you have to live with on a daily basis. If you do experience this thumping or pulsing every day, it’s probably a smart move to see a doctor. Like other forms of tinnitus, pulsatile tinnitus is a symptom of another condition rather than a disease, so it may indicate a health concern of it persists. In many cases, pulsatile tinnitus is related back to a heart condition, so it’s important to relate any heart health history to your doctor or hearing specialist when you see them about your tinnitus. But if you just had a good workout (or a good scare), you should stop hearing the pulsing or thumping as soon as your heart rate returns to normal.
How Can I Prevent Tinnitus and the Odd Noises in my Ear?
Since tinnitus is usually a symptom of an underlying issue rather than the condition itself, you need to dig a little deeper to come up with ways to prevent tinnitus. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to get started:
- Do I get colds or sinus infections often?
- Do I push cotton swabs into my ear canal?
- Am I sensitive to environmental allergens like dust and pollen?
- Am I exposed to loud noises over and over again?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then there’s good news: you have the chance to prevent tinnitus by changing how you approach these issues. Here’s a list of the ways you can prevent tinnitus by changing some of your actions and behaviors:
- Avoid getting sick. It’s not particularly easy to avoid getting sick, but there are a number of surefire ways to reduce your chances of getting a cold, the flu, or a sinus infection, which impact your eustachian tubes. First, make sure to wash your hands – a lot. You should wash your hands any time you go out or come into contact with something other people have touched, like a shopping cart or ATM machine. You should also avoid public places as much as possible during flu and cold season, such as restaurants and shopping malls. Keep an eye on the news reports to find out whether the flu is waxing or waning for the season, and if you have to go out when the flu is at its height (for instance, to pick up some Vitamin C), you can wear a medical mask. You might get some funny looks, but at least you won’t be getting sick.
- Use cotton swabs the right way. A hearing specialist, or even your family doctor, can tell you how to use cotton swabs the correct way to avoid pushing wax deeper into your ear canal. You can also make an appointment to get your ears cleaned by a hearing specialist if your ear canals are already clogged with wax.
- Treat allergies. Common environmental allergies can cause problems with your eustachian tubes just like a cold or sinus infection, so it’s important to do what you can to treat your allergies. In cases of hay fever and pollen allergies, you may want to take an over-the-counter antihistamine or consult with your doctor about a medicine to help treat your allergies. These types of allergies are hard to avoid when they’re in season since pollen can affect you whether you’re indoors or out. You may want to invest in a HEPA filter and be sure to change air filters regularly if you have problems with dust since these actions can help cut down on the amount of dust and irritants in the air.
- Invest in a good pair of earmuffs or earplugs. Prevention falls into two categories when it comes to loud noises: work and pleasure. If you work at a construction site or perform lawn maintenance on a regular basis, you’ll want to get a good pair of protective earmuffs – preferably the kind that cancel out noises over a certain decibel. If you like going to the firearms range, riding a motorcycle, or loud concerts, you should look into a pair of form-fitting earplugs that can reduce the sounds that get into your ears but still allow you to enjoy your hobbies.
Do you hear a crackling in your ear and suspect you have tinnitus? Set up a consultation with a hearing specialist in your area to find out about treatments available to you.
Page medically reviewed by Kevin St. Clergy, Audiologist, on January 21, 2020.