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What Causes Spontaneous Ringing In Our Ears?

ringing in the ears


What Causes Spontaneous Ringing In Our Ears?

It happens to everyone. Abruptly, with no warning or apparent cause, one or both of your ears starts to ring. A seemingly high pitched sound that can be distracting at times. Sometimes lasting for just a few minutes, other times lasting for hours. We wanted to know what causes this annoying phenomena, and if there are ways to prevent it from happening.

A Brief Public Service Announcement

We would like to let our readers know that if you’re experiencing a ringing in one ear which will not go away (unilateral tinnitus), you should seek the advice of a medical professional, like your primary care physician. He or she may refer you to an audiologist who specializes in tinnitus. Unilateral tinnitus may be the result of something more serious than the occasional tinnitus we describe below.

How Do We Hear?

Before we can understand how and why tinnitus occurs, we need to know how we hear. More specifically, we need to know how the ear turns vibrations in the air into electrical signals, signals which our brain processes then interprets as sound. That starts with the mammalian cochlea.

inner hair cellThe mammalian cochlea has two types of sensory hair cell; the outer and inner hair cells. These cells are what detects then converts vibrations or movement into electrical signals. When a sound enter the ear, it causes pressure fluctuations within the inner ear. The inner ear is filled with fluids, fluids which help facilitate the transfer of these vibrations. They vibrate down a thin, spiral trampoline-like structure called the basilar membrane. When this membrane moves, even slightly, it is detected by the inner hair cells. These cells are located on top of the basilar membrane. When they detect these vibrations, they relay the signals to the brain via the auditory nerve.

While sound vibrations travel efficiently through the liquid in your inner ear, it doesn’t do so without cost. If you have ever tried to run in a pool or in water, you know it’s much more difficult than running on land thanks to the viscosity and friction of water. This is where the outer hair cells shine. Like inner hair cells, they also detect movement on the basilar membrane. However unlike the inner hair cells, they are capable of producing vibrations themselves. Instead of sending a bunch of signals to the brain, possibly over stimulating it, their job is to expand and contract in time with the vibrations they detect. This cancels out the friction and amplifies the sound by a factor of 100 to 1,000. Thanks to the outer hair cells, our hearing sensitivity is increased by 40-60 dB (decibels). Notably, in the higher frequency ranges.

So What Causes The Ringing?

When the outer hair cells put energy back into the vibration, it’s called positive feedback or “saturation feedback”. The process is meant to amplify very quiet sounds more so than loud ones. Most of the time, it works great and you go on with your life, not noticing anything out of the ordinary. However, biological systems aren’t always flawless. Occasionally, the amplification level of one or more outer hair cells will go awry and as a result, the whole system will erupt into spontaneous oscillation.

When this occurs, it becomes audible to us (we hear it). We perceive it as a ringing in the ear, or “sudden-onset ringing tinnitus”. As with most of our biological systems, there are quite a few homestatic control mechanisms (negative feedback loops) which exist to correct the problem and get rid of the unpleasant oscillation. Biology Tight RopeNerves whose job it is to tell the auditory nerve and/or hair cells to cut it out. It takes roughly 30 seconds for this mechanism to begin to do its thing and send the required messages which suppress the ringing. After the message is sent and received, the tinnitus percept begins to fade away. You can tell when this reaction has taken place as its often accompanied by a slight reduction in hearing sensitivity (like background or ambient noise we hear suddenly getting quieter), followed by a feeling of fullness in the ear. It usually takes about a minute for this process to fully complete.

Our ears are walking a tightrope in high winds. While want our ear’s gain turned up high to maximize our hearing, we also don’t want the spontaneous oscillations that come with the increased sensitivity. If you stop and think about it, it’s amazing that our regulatory mechanisms work well enough that ringing doesn’t happen more often. The human body is more amazing than we give it credit for.

Why Is Your Hearing Less When Yawning?

Your ear muscles emit a quiet, low-frequency sound when they contract. When you yawn, your muscles around the middle ear are contracting (specifically, the tensor veli palatini). This causes a dull roar from the muscle contraction and is also responsible clicking or popping sounds you may hear from your Eustachian tubes opening.

When the Eustachian tubes open, the pressure around them goes down. This lowering of pressure not only causes the rumbling or subtle roaring noises to lessen, but all of your hearing is temporarily decreased until the yawn is over and the Eustachian tubes close.

Other interesting facts:

  • Under ideal acoustic circumstances (in a soundproof room having an ambient noise level of 17 dB or less), slight tinnitus is present in 80 to 90% of all adults.
  • Fish don’t have ears, but they can “hear” pressure changes in water through ridges on their body.
  • Your hearing doesn’t “turn off” in your sleep, your brain just tunes out or “ignores” any incoming sounds.
  • One-third of adults over the age of 65 suffers from some hearing loss; however, more than half of those who suffer from hearing loss are under age 65.
  • Your ears contain over 25,000 inner & outer hair cells.

References & Citations:

Jan Schnupp, Israel Nelken and Andrew King (2011). Auditory Neuroscience.
Peng, AW.; Salles, FT.; Pan, B.; Ricci, AJ. “Integrating the biophysical and molecular mechanisms of auditory hair cell mechanotransduction“.
Nicolas-Puel C, Faulconbridge RL, Guitton M, Puel JL, Mondain M, Uziel A. “Characteristics of tinnitus and etiology of associated hearing loss: a study of 123 patients”. The international tinnitus journal 8 (1): 37–44
Daniel Schacter, Daniel Gilbert, Daniel Wegner (2011). “Sensation and Perception”. In Charles Linsmeiser. Psychology. Worth Publishers. p. 158-159.
Simmons R, Stocking C, (2009). “Head, Neck, and Eye Movements That Modulate Tinnitus“. Seminars in hearing 29: 360–371.
Manley GA, Popper AN, Fay RR (2004). Evolution of the Vertebrate Auditory System. New York: Springer-Verlag. ISBN 0-387-21093-8.



  1. TiagoTiago

    June 22, 2013 at 12:06 am

    Nice to know. I was worried it meant my ear hairs were dying from hearing loud things (but the ringing doesn’t happen specifically right after any loud noises, just spontaneously – especially in quiet rooms, and doesn’t last for too long, exactly as described here).

    PS: But don’t worry, I will mention it anyway next time I talk with my ear doctor.

  2. jon

    July 15, 2013 at 5:11 pm

    I also have ringing in the ears. I can tell you this, it is not tinnitus. I only hear it in my home where there are unknown R.F. signals being beamed into my bedroom. I say unknown because I have R.F. detection equipment and the beam is not coming from outside my home. When I leave the house, the ringing goes away. It may be coming in from the roof, but I didn’t want to go up there. Do you live next to one of the hundreds of cell towers? That may be your problem.

    • Carin

      December 16, 2013 at 10:48 pm

      The sound you hear may be coming from a feedback from your TV, or other appliances. This often occurs in buildings with older wiring. Try listening to the room without anything turned-on. Then, see if the sound goes away when the appliance (i.e. TV) is turned-on.

    • Hard Target

      May 4, 2014 at 2:33 am

      A few months ago an acquaintance casually stated that if he hears a high pitched sound he just assumes a TV was turned on. The statement had no relevance to anything discussed at the time. Shortly after, I started hearing a ringing in my left ear but only at home. Odd eh? It could be that the meters on the house are near my bedroom window. But it could also be some form of electronic harassment being done by a vicious neighbor. Just a thought.

  3. linda

    September 15, 2013 at 5:54 pm

    I have ringing in my ears. I live by 3 towers. As soon I get home they start ringing. It start with a high pitch, then low. It depends on the towers. Sometimes the pitch is so high it hurts my ears. This happens all day and night. The ringing doesn’t stop until I leave my house then I’m ok. As soon I get close it starts again.

    • sue

      December 6, 2013 at 12:04 am

      I think between the cell towers and now the new digital electric “smart” meters, I have this tinnitus. Also sometimes hissing, crackling sounds. I have a log of when the smart meter transmits data as at those times it gives off a sound like old fashioned telephone ringing, my pets can hear it too. Smart meters plus cell towers are a disaster.

      • Marie Garza

        September 22, 2015 at 9:24 am

        I totally agree. Our smart meter is way to close to my office. I can’t barely talk on the phone in here and the ringing in my ears is horrible in my bedroom, my office and basically the entire house. My ears don’t ring at my daughters house.

      • sue

        October 3, 2015 at 2:26 am

        I’m a sue too, what a coincidence. I ran across this while looking up more info on ringing in ears due to smart meters. I had EXACTLY the same experience as you. When the meter transmitted data 10 seconds at a time, it made my surge protectors ring like the old telephones- so it was utterly fantastic that someone else has experienced this phenomenon. I complained and the electric and they replaced the meter with another digital smart meter.

        So far, since we are in a rural area, they are using the PLC (Power Line Communication) method of monitoring. It’s even more dangerous than the “wireless” smart meters, they say, as they have to have more power to transmit further. Now I hear almost constant high pitched ringing/squealing/hissing. Sometimes it is so high pitched it’s like a dog whistle — it hurts my head.

        I also am within 2 miles of about 3 cell towers. But they were there before and I heard the ringing the first day they removed our analog electric meter and installed the digital one. I’m sure that 30 years from now, they’ll discover the digital grid is not so safe as touted… In the meantime, what do we do? Here in NC there is no opt-out with any electric company I know of.

  4. Ruby

    October 24, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    I have a continually long ring in my right ear and it stays until I rub it, and THEN it goes away. I have two problems that I am concerned about, my right eye twitching and my ear w/ the ringing. I have had this happen ever since I was about 3 years old. Both were there and never went away. I have tried everything for the eye but nothing seems to cure the ear and I can’t go to an audiologist to check it out because I’m moving in the near by future… What should I do if the audiologist doesn’t find anything wrong but its still there?

  5. Eric

    December 18, 2013 at 7:50 pm

    I work in the trades, it’s noisy. I go home, turn the lights off, and it’s quite time, I can here a slight ringing in the ears,This I know is perfectly normal. However there are times when my dog will all of a sudden just go crazy barking, along with the dogs in the neighborhood. In the meantime, I’m looking to see what there barking at (naturally) and there’s nothing. During this time there is a loud ringing in the ears for about 20 seconds. This I find very odd, and simply don’t understand. This may sound weird but there has to be something at play causing this, I just don’t know what.

    • David

      November 8, 2014 at 2:32 pm

      I’ve had similar problems. Do you wear ear plugs at work? Is there yelling or cursing at home when the dogs bark? Try wearing ear buds (like stereo type for cell phones, etc.), but you don’t have to plug em into anything – they will function as a partial ear/noise block at home when you anticipate there may be noise or ear problem around that time. I think these should block mild ear problems anyway.

  6. Heather

    January 7, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    What are RF signals?

    • mary

      February 4, 2014 at 7:37 pm

      RF. They are radio frequency signals. They are harmless.

      • Gregg

        December 15, 2014 at 6:54 pm

        That statement is just wrong. Are you an RF engineer? Radio Frequencies can be very harmful. From low to highest frequency range, there are frequencies that are absorbed by your body, not reflected. A microwave oven, anyone? Do you know how that works, or at what frequency(ies)- 1-2 Ghz? High power RF is bad for you. Don’t ever live near a cell repeater, radio broadcast towers, etc. Best to use a low powered Bluetooth headset (very low power) than to stick a cell phone near your brain, pumping out several watts of power, 10 to 100 times the power..Only the government will tell you that this stuff is harmless. Some people appear to be very sensitive to RF. Since typical human hearing range is typically less than 20kHz, I’m not sure it will cause ringing sensations in your ears.

        • FuujinSama

          May 21, 2015 at 2:41 pm

          I am a communications engineer. Your post is full of crap. First of all, you don’t hear radio frequencies. Radio frequencies are light. You don’t hear light. Some electronics produce some mechanical noise, and that’s what you hear.

          Secondly, radio waves are non ionizing. Yes your skin might absorb them and it will be just like a microwave, it will heat up. Except no one is wasting energy on heating people so you won’t actually feel a difference. The intensity of the radiation won’t matter for ionization purposes. Only the intensity of each photon. So unless the radio tower is somehow emitting ultra violet radiation you should be all right (so run away when the towers start shining!)

          • Jen

            August 10, 2016 at 4:03 pm

            Actually RF radiation results in the vibration of water molecules with our body, thereby causing injury via a thermal effect. Pulsed RF radiation from radar installations are known to cause slight temperature increases in the brain which can cause a thermoelastic wave in the head which is detected by the cochlea. You do have to be at fairly closes distances to the RF antennas, but how close depends on their frequency and how many there are.

  7. Greg

    February 4, 2014 at 10:19 pm

    Does this happen to anyone else? When I purposely push out my jaw, simulating a severe under bite, I get a high-pitched constant tone in my ears. It stops as soon as I return my jaw to its normal position. This doesn’t happen when opening my mouth normally. Any suggestions? Thanks.

    • Hey

      July 19, 2014 at 5:30 pm

      Yes, this happens to me as well. I do this whenever I get the ringing in my ears. It seems to overpower it and afterwards, I hear a fan-like sound that fades away in 5-15 seconds. It usually takes the constant ringing away.

  8. Steve

    October 22, 2014 at 9:51 am

    I suffered a concussion at work almost 2 months ago and just started to notice this constant tinnitus ringing sound a few days ago.
    I just don’t know why. There have been some unintentional loud noises around me. Any suggestions?

  9. Jackie Howells

    June 24, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    I get a high pitch sound in both ears but not at the same time, every now and then, it lasts 5 or 10 secs no longer then goes away just as you have described, then my ear does feel a little painful but it passes quite quickly. This has caused me a lot of distress and anxiety over the years as I am terrified of getting permanent tinnitus. Needless to say I have been to the doctors but nobody ever explained why it happens, just to ignore it or it is nothing but it always made me frightened and it has turned into a bit of a phobia as I panic when it happens. Now I finally understand why this happens.

  10. jezz2k .

    July 22, 2015 at 11:41 pm

    I’ve always assumed it was some kind of feedback effect, although I wouldn’t describe it as a ringing sound. To me, its more like a faint whine which can get louder if its dead quiet, especially at night. In fact, if its that quiet, I can cause the feedback to occur if I concentrate hard enough, and even stop it. As I have control over it, I guess I don’t really have a problem.

  11. JJaquish

    January 17, 2016 at 10:04 am

    Interesting information in these comments. This is my story of sudden ear ringing: I woke up Friday with loud ringing and muffled hearing in my right ear. I am 57, in good health, and do have constant mild tinnitus, ringing in my ears, anyway, but this was dis-orienting. It magnified certain frequencies so that music sounded like the high notes were cymbals crashing and it muffled sounds like I had a pillow over that ear. I scared myself with internet diagnosis. I noticed next day that one nostril was slightly stopped up. So, on the 2nd day I snorted Afrin No Drip Severe Congestion pump mist that we use for scuba diving. Sunday, today, the ringing is a little louder than my normal ringing but hardly noticeable and is not disorienting, just slightly louder. I hope that my problem was congestion in one ear. All through this I felt fine.

  12. Celestinelove99

    October 8, 2016 at 2:44 am

    I hear ringing in my ears when I go into the closet or small spaces. Open or closed. It feels like I hear it but its not really there. It is very high pitched but I can barely hear it. Its not because there is a device on it only happens when I’m in Small spaces.

  13. leon c.

    October 16, 2016 at 3:20 am

    The summation of this article is bunk. Because our concern is the extended nature of the ringing. I’ve become aware of variables… No doubt, the kind that leads aware individuals to explore the ones that can be eliminated before the drawing of the conclusions.

  14. Greg

    February 28, 2017 at 12:35 pm

    I have had ringing in my ears (both) for 20 years now. I have tried everything I can to find out how to stop it. What I found out was Pepper ( any type of pepper ) starts my ringing. When I stop using pepper it stops. I know it sounds weird, but that’s what happens to me.
    PS. The more pepper I consume the louder my ears ring.
    Hope this helps someone out there.

  15. Mikhail

    March 21, 2019 at 12:28 pm

    Super interesting and helpful, thanks for this cool article!

    Was worried about the ringing I occasionally hear, but this completely calms my nerve and makes me proud of my body for being able to regulate so well.

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