This woman felt like she was “going crazy” when she kept hearing a mysterious whistling in her ear


Dana Pulciani first heard the mysterious noise when she woke up one morning in the fall of 2022.

It was something totally unexpected. She had always been in good health and the day before everything had gone well. But suddenly, she felt a constant whistling sound in her left ear, similar to what you hear when a pregnant woman has an ultrasound.

At first, Pulciani and his primary doctor thought he had fluid in his ear. But when the noise persisted and grew louder, he began to worry.

“I listened to him 24 hours a day. The noise got to the point that she couldn't actually sleep because it was so loud,” Pulciani, now 39 and living in Warrenville, Illinois, told Today.

“For 13 months I slept between two and three hours every night. That's how difficult it was to get peace of mind. It was quite difficult to cope with.”

Pulciani recalled that she thought she was “going crazy.” She started doing yoga three times a week to try to calm her mind.

He realized that the sound was in tune with his heartbeat, and discovered that when he pushed on the jugular vein in his neck, the noise stopped.

In December 2022, he finally had an explanation for what was happening to him: pulsatile tinnitus, a rare subgroup of tinnitus.

What is pulsatile tinnitus?

Habitual tinnitus occurs when a person hears a noise — often a beep, hum, hiss or high-pitched sound — that is not actually present in their environment, explained Dr. Ali Shaibani, an interventional neuroradiologist at the Northwestern Pulsatile Tinnitus Clinic. Chicago Medicine.

Pulsatile tinnitus, which accounts for about 15% of cases, is usually a whoosh-whoosh” which patients describe as hearing their heartbeat in their ear, he added. According to the clinic, the rhythmic and pulsating noise occurs inside the body and is related to the vascular system.

It can be seriously life-altering.

“I've had at least one patient who was so distraught that she had suicidal thoughts,” Shaibani told Today.

“People have trouble doing their jobs because they say the noise is so loud it's hard to have a phone conversation.”

Sometimes, pulsatile tinnitus can be a symptom of a dangerous condition: a short circuit between arteries and veins near the base of the skull, known as an arteriovenous fistula, which can cause a stroke or hemorrhage, Shaibani explained.

But in Pulciani's case, the cause was more benign. He had a narrowing of one of the main veins that draw blood from the brain, probably caused by idiopathic intracranial hypertension, or high pressure in the head, Shaibani said.

Surgery to stop wheezing

A narrow vein produces noise in the same way that pursed lips produce a hiss, Shaibani explained. And because blood flows rhythmically, people with this condition hear a whistling sound synchronized with the heartbeat.

Pulciani was able to silence the noise when he pressed his jugular vein, because this stopped the blood flow in the vein and, therefore, the sound.

This is a good first test when doctors are trying to find out if a person has pulsatile tinnitus, Shaibani added.

In November 2023, Shaibani placed a stent in the narrow vein in Pulciani's brain to open the blood vessel and eliminate the noise. During the three hours that the operation lasted, the skull did not have to be opened: the endoprosthesis was introduced through a vein in the groin and was directed with a long, flexible tube through the body to the vein in the head.

The stent also treated thinning of the bone around the vein, a secondary cause of the noise, by creating a support wall for the blood vessel, Shaibani added.

The results were immediate.

“Once I fully woke up it was literally the most rewarding feeling after 13 months of not hearing that noise,” recalled Pulciani, who is a spine clinic supervisor at Northwestern Medicine.

“I told Dr. Shaibani that I felt like he had given me my life back.”

More than six months after the operation, Pulciani said he felt very well. He recommended people who have the same symptoms to be aware of the difference between normal tinnitus and pulsatile tinnitus. When she was still hearing the noise, she found answers and support in a Facebook group called Whooshers for people with pulsatile tinnitus.

Shaibani said it's common to hear a heartbeat from time to time, especially if you're lying on your left side in bed against two pillows.

But if you hear it every day—especially a sound whooshwhooshalthough it is not necessarily continuous—it is something to pay attention to, regardless of whether it is not so annoying, because it can be a sign of that dangerous arteriovenous fistula in a minority of cases.

“Many of the causes of pulsatile tinnitus are treatable, unlike regular tinnitus, for which we don't always have a good treatment,” Shaibani added.

“Of course, if the noise is loud enough that it's really affecting your daily life or your ability to sleep, then you should definitely go get it checked out.”