Ringing in the ears, called tinnitus, is a sign of inner ear disease. It is normal to occasionally feel a sudden stuffiness in one ear followed by ringing that gets louder and then subsides over several seconds. When the feeling persists for several minutes or more, it can indicate an ear problem. The sounds heard in a diseased ear are described most commonly as a high-pitched ringing sound, but you might hear a buzzing sound, humming, or a fuzzy sound like you hear in-between stations on the radio. Sometimes there can be a low-pitched ringing or roaring quality, like a vacuum cleaner. There can also be clicking or clanking noises in a diseased ear.
Persistent tinnitus usually indicates hearing loss. You may feel that the tinnitus is actually causing the hearing loss by drowning out normal sounds, but in reality, the hearing you have lost is simply replaced by ringing. The loudness of the sound can vary depending upon sounds in the environment. If you notice that the ringing seems to worsen when you have a dizzy spell, it can indicate that the ringing ear is the source of the dizziness problem.
Hearing loss can also be an indicator of a more serious inner ear problem. The ears are symmetrical, so a loss in just one ear is unusual. You can test your hearing by rubbing your fingers together next to each ear and comparing the sound, or holding your phone up to one ear and then the other. Sometimes just certain tones are involved—you might be able to hear high tones, but low tones will be muffled. When hearing is impaired, you might also feel a stuffy feeling in the ear, as if it needs to pop, but popping the ear will not change it. Hearing loss in just one ear means you should see a physician and get a hearing test.
Neck or head tilting are symptoms of some vestibular disorders. If the symptom persists, it can cause aching in the neck or head because the muscles are being held in an unnatural position. The gravity sensors of the inner ear, the otolith organs or maculae, are responsible for maintaining the proper orientation of the head with respect to gravity. Problems with these organs can cause the direction of gravity to be miscalculated, and make the head tip rather than remain upright. If permanent damage to one of these organs occurs, the amount of head tilting will be at its worst when the problem first arises, and gradually become less noticeable after the passage of several weeks. This symptom can result from either direct damage to the gravity sensors, or interruption of the fibers they send to the brain.
Headaches are common in vertigo disorders. Some causes of headaches, like migraine and sleep apnea, also cause vertigo. When there is something wrong in the ear that causes head tilt, it can cause a tension headache from the tilted head position.
Motion sickness is another common vestibular problem that we will talk about in the next section.