A ear canal that shows the inside of the head as ringing bells. The outside of the ear has soothing white waves around it.

Earplugs: Friend or Foe for Those with MS & Tinnitus?

When I’m in a full-on relapse, I fall into long periods of loud ear ringing.

Tinnitus (the medical term for ear ringing) is a rare occurrence for people with MS (less than 5 percent experience it). However, it can and does happen.

Ringing ears can be minor enough to ignore, or it can be so loud as to make it impossible to hear anything else or to fall asleep.

Tinnitus can come with cog fog & sensory overload

For me, tinnitus tags along with MS-related cognitive fog during periods of hypersocial activity and sensory overload.

My ears rang like church bells

As an example, I went to the city for the Chinese New Year dragon parade one year, which while lively and colorful, was not friendly to my MS. My ears rang like church bells until the next day. Indeed, the noise kept me up all night long.

As a credentialed sleep technologist and sleep educator, I know that ringing ears can lead to insomnia or fragmented sleep.1

When earplugs help me

Earplugs are often recommended, and I wouldn’t disparage their usage from time to time. They work for me when I am traveling or when I know I will be in a space where sudden loud noise will be a problem, since I can be pretty jumpy, thanks to MS.

However, while earplugs are great for blocking noise, they aren’t really one of the best options for treating neurologically-related tinnitus. Here’s why.

Tinnitus is an internal problem

For people with MS, tinnitus might occur as the result of neurological challenges.

Nerves that conduct signals between the brain and the ear may not deploy correctly, and this means sounds can bounce around inside and not be managed by all the delicate moving parts of the ear.

Earplugs won't help if your ears are already ringing

Putting earplugs in won’t stop the noise unless you wear the earplugs before you encounter the noise. Then the barrier prevents the noise from becoming a sensory overload problem.

So, yes! Use earplugs if you’re going to a noisy parade… I know I will next time!

But if your ears are already ringing, earplugs won’t fix that.

Sensory overstimulation

For me and others with MS, tinnitus is a result of sensory overstimulation. If my ears are already ringing, it’s because they’re already affected by dysfunctional neurological processing.

Lesions, for instance, might cause some kinds of hearing impairment in people with MS, as can disease activity of the white matter in the central nervous system.2

My solution for dampening the sound of ringing ears (day or night) is not to use earplugs. Instead, it has been to make friends with white noise.

What is white noise?

White (or pink) noise refers to even sounds that can provide an audible “backdrop” for loud or erratic noise in the environment, making it easier for the brain to perceive, process and regulate it.3

The underlying background sounds are gentle and continuous, providing an auditory “anchor” that allows the brain to quiet down. This can be especially useful when you want to fall asleep.

Using white noise

People (with or without MS) might also use white noise to dampen the sounds of harsh exterior noise during the day (like construction outside), or apartment neighbors who make a lot of racket, or heightened or piercing voices (as from children inside or outside one’s home). White noise is also great for assisting with meditation.

Sources of white noise include fans (in the kitchen or bathroom, or from actual fans), low soft music, smartphone apps, and small machines which can play different kinds of relaxing noises (such as the sounds of the wind, waves on a beach, crickets, and the like).

Tinnitus and earplugs

Keep in mind, not all tinnitus is caused by neurological problems like MS.

Another reason why earplugs may not be a good idea: regular use of them can lead to a buildup of earwax. Over time, this can repeatedly block the ear canal. Earwax buildup is a chief and common cause for ringing ears, it turns out.4

Before you decide your ringing ears are caused by MS, rule this one out first if you regularly use earplugs.

Earwax buildup

For some (especially swimmers), earwax buildup is a regular problem. It may require using eardrops to break down the blockage, a trip to the doctor to remove it entirely, or medications to treat what might become a residual ear infection, another risk for using earplugs.

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