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Man with his fingers in his ears because of crackling noises.

 

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… Not to go all horror movie, but the sounds are 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 ear—er, eye. 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), if any are persistent, painful, or otherwise impeding your quality of life, it’s a good idea to talk to a hearing specialist.

Crackling or Popping

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 equalizing 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 tubes can literally get gummed up. In severe cases, where decongestant sprays or antibiotics don’t provide relief, a blockage can require surgical intervention. If you’re experiencing persistent ear pain or pressure, talk to a hearing specialist to get a diagnosis.

Ringing or Buzzing–Is It Tinnitus?

Again, if you have hearing aids, you might hear these kinds of sounds if they 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 infections, but how can it make a sound? If wax is touching your eardrum, it can inhibit the eardrum’s ability to function—that’s what causes the buzzing or ringing. The good news is it’s easily fixed: Go to a hearing specialist and have the excess wax professionally removed. (This is not a DIY task!)

Excessive, persistent ringing or buzzing is called tinnitus. (Even buzzing from excessive earwax counts as a form of tinnitus.) Tinnitus isn’t itself a disease or disorder; it’s a symptom that indicates 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; talk to a hearing specialist to learn more.

Rumbling

This one’s less common—and if you can hear it, you’re the one making the sound happen! Know how sometimes, if you yawn really big, you can hear a low rumble? It’s 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, even your own voice!

We’re not saying you chew too loudly—it’s just that those sounds are so close to your ears that without these muscles, the noise level would be damaging. (And since never chewing or speaking isn’t a good option, we’ll stick with the muscles, thanks!) It’s extremely rare, but some people can control one of these muscles—the tensor tympani—and produce that rumble at will.

Pulsing or Thumping

If you sometimes feel like you’re hearing your heartbeat 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 or big job interview—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 not only you can hear—if you go to a hearing specialist, he or she will be able to hear it, too. While it’s totally normal to experience pulsatile tinnitus when your heart’s racing, if it’s something you’re living with on a daily basis, it’s a smart move to see a doctor. Like other forms of tinnitus, pulsatile tinnitus is a symptom rather than a disease; if it persists, it may indicate a health concern. But if you just had a good workout (or a good scare!), you should stop hearing it as soon as your heart rate returns to normal.

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