A ringing, hissing or buzzing sound in your ear could be tinnitus, which affects an estimated 50 million people in the U.S. and usually isn’t severe. But there is another, potentially more serious, type of tinnitus called whooshing syndrome, in which you’re actually hearing the sound of blood flowing near your ears in time with your heartbeat.
What Causes Whooshing Syndrome?
Among the causes of whooshing syndrome, or pulsatile tinnitus, is idiopathic intracranial hypertension, a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid around your brain. If left untreated, it can lead to permanent vision loss.
The condition is most common in women between the ages of 20 and 50 with a body mass index above 30, which is considered obese. And while it is a rare disorder, there has been an increase in cases as our population struggles with weight issues.
With this form of hypertension, the buildup of cerebrospinal fluid puts increasingly higher pressure on the sinuses found in the back of your head and on the optic nerves at the back of your eyes. This combination makes it more difficult for blood to flow (creating the sound in your ears) and disrupts your vision. This can cause double vision or blindness in one or both eyes.
The first line of treatment revolves around weight loss and medications to reduce the body’s production of cerebrospinal fluid and retention of fluids. If those options don’t work well enough, there is a minimally invasive procedure available.
With venous sinus stenting, your surgeon makes a tiny cut in your upper arm or leg. Using advanced imaging, a thin, flexible tube is guided to the site of the narrowed vein. A metallic mesh is used to reinforce that vein and counter the narrowing, which eliminates the whooshing sound and vision symptoms for 90 percent of patients.
Other Causes of Whooshing Syndrome
As with other forms of tinnitus, whooshing syndrome is not a condition, but rather a symptom of other disorders. The syndrome is caused when another condition affects blood flow in the blood vessels around your ears. There are, however, some instances in which the culprit is nothing more than an enhanced ability to hear blood flow.
Medical causes include:
- High blood pressure (hypertension): When your blood pressure is too high, it can cause problems throughout your circulatory system.
- Arteriovenous malformations: These tangles of blood vessels can disrupt the normal blood flow between your veins and arteries near your ears.
- Atherosclerosis: This hardening of your arteries can cause uneven blood flow.
- Sinus wall abnormalities: On the side of your brain is a sinus wall that receives blood from veins within your brain. Abnormalities there can cause noise inside this channel.
- Middle ear tumors: Small tumors in your middle ear can essentially become sound receptors, allowing you to hear blood flow.
- Head trauma: Tinnitus, including pulsatile tinnitus, is common among people who have suffered a traumatic head injury.
Treatment for Whooshing Syndrome
In most cases, treatment is based on diagnosing and resolving the underlying medical condition causing the unwanted sounds. If your blood pressure is too high, for example, medication and lifestyle changes may bring it down. If the cause of the whooshing cannot be identified, treatment options include:
- Sound generators: These devices deliver more pleasant sounds to your ears to mask the tinnitus. For some people, these may be hearing aids that produce sounds.
- Environmental enrichment devices: Tinnitus can also be masked through soothing background sounds playing on a radio, smartphone or tablet.
- Relaxation techniques: Yoga, meditation and other relaxation techniques can help you deal with the frustrations of the nonstop tinnitus sounds.
- Counseling: Different types of counseling and therapies can help you learn to pay less attention to the sounds in your ears.
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