Most of the causes of tinnitus alter neurological activity within the auditory cortex, the portion of the brain responsible for hearing. The transmission of sound is interrupted, so some of the neural circuits fail to receive signals. Instead of causing hearing loss, as you might expect due to the lack of stimulation, the neural circuits begin chattering. First, they chatter alone. Then, they become hyperactive and synchronous. When we experience this deviation, our brains attempt to compensate for the change by interpreting the neurological activity as sound. This can resemble ringing, buzzing, hissing, whistling, or roaring, amongst a variety of other noises.
According to the American Tinnitus Association, most cases of tinnitus are caused by hearing loss. Occasionally though, tinnitus is caused by an irritation to the auditory system. Tinnitus can sometimes be a symptom of a problem with the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). If your tinnitus is caused by TMJ, then a dental procedure or realignment of your bite may alleviate the problem.
Tinnitus (pronounced tih-NITE-us or TIN-ih-tus) is sound in the head with no external source. For many, it's a ringing sound, while for others, it's whistling, buzzing, chirping, hissing, humming, roaring, or even shrieking. The sound may seem to come from one ear or both, from inside the head, or from a distance. It may be constant or intermittent, steady or pulsating.
Don’t ignore ear pain. Pain or discomfort in your ear can be a sign of conditions associated with tinnitus, including ear infections and earwax buildup. These conditions, and the discomfort they cause, can also interfere with sleep. Whether your ear pain is sharp or dull, constant or intermittent, accompanied by itching or not, take these symptoms to your doctor.
Most people should have a formal hearing test done by either the doctor or a hearing specialist (audiologist). People with tinnitus in only one ear and hearing loss should have gadolinium-enhanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). People with tinnitus in only one ear and normal hearing should have an MRI if tinnitus lasts more than 6 months. People with pulsatile tinnitus often require magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) and sometimes angiography.
Tinnitus is not a disease — it’s a symptom. It’s a sign that something is wrong with your auditory system, which includes your ear, the auditory nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain, and the parts of the brain that process sound. There are a variety of different conditions that can cause tinnitus. One of the most common is noise-induced hearing loss.
Shore says her therapy isn’t for everyone — at least not yet. So far, she’s only treated patients who have a specific form of tinnitus that changes in intensity or pitch when a person moves certain parts of her body. For example, some tinnitus sufferers find the sound in their ears lessens when they clench their teeth or open their mouths wide. This suggests that some touch inputs can influence the tinnitus, Shore says. (Roughly two-thirds of tinnitus patients have this form of the condition, she adds.)
If you develop tinnitus, it's important to see your clinician. She or he will take a medical history, give you a physical examination, and do a series of tests to try to find the source of the problem. She or he will also ask you to describe the noise you're hearing (including its pitch and sound quality, and whether it's constant or periodic, steady or pulsatile) and the times and places in which you hear it. Your clinician will review your medical history, your current and past exposure to noise, and any medications or supplements you're taking. Tinnitus can be a side effect of many medications, especially when taken at higher doses (see "Some drugs that can cause or worsen tinnitus").
Practice mindfulness meditation. I’ve written about the power of mindfulness mediation to reduce stress and improve sleep. A 2017 study found mindfulness meditation is also effective in helping people better manage tinnitus. Mindfulness meditation involves sitting comfortably, putting your attention on your natural breathing. When your mind wanders—to irritating tinnitus sounds, to worry about sleep, or wherever else it goes, gently return your attention to your breath. Start with a 5-minute session, and as you grow more comfortable with the practice, you can increase the time. You can practice mindfulness meditation anywhere, at any time of day—including in the shower!
Acoustic neural stimulation is a relatively new technique for people whose tinnitus is very loud or won’t go away. It uses a palm-sized device and headphones to deliver a broadband acoustic signal embedded in music. The treatment helps stimulate change in the neural circuits in the brain, which eventually desensitizes you to the tinnitus. The device has been shown to be effective in reducing or eliminating tinnitus in a significant number of study volunteers.
Cochlear Implants. These implants are a treatment option for patients that have a severe hearing loss along with tinnitus. Cochlear implants are designed to bypass any damaged parts of the inner ear and send the electrical signals sound makes directly to the auditory nerve. By bringing in outside noise, these implants can effectively mask your tinnitus, as well as stimulate your neural circuits to change.
Most tinnitus is "sensorineural," meaning that it's due to hearing loss at the cochlea or cochlear nerve level. But tinnitus may originate in other places. Our bodies normally produce sounds (called somatic sounds) that we usually don't notice because we are listening to external sounds. Anything that blocks normal hearing can bring somatic sounds to our attention. For example, you may get head noise when earwax blocks the outer ear.
Cochlear implants are sometimes used in people who have tinnitus along with severe hearing loss. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged portion of the inner ear and sends electrical signals that directly stimulate the auditory nerve. The device brings in outside sounds that help mask tinnitus and stimulate change in the neural circuits. Read the NIDCD fact sheet Cochlear Implants for more information.
This tinnitus treatment we developed makes use of software that customizes a music-based therapy for each individual tinnitus sufferer. The software achieves this by incorporating a computational model of the “tinnitus brain.” This model captures changes in the auditory brain which may be causing the tinnitus.5,7 We do this by taking into account the individual’s audiogram and a pitch match of their tinnitus, which generates a tinnitus profile unique to him or her. The software then uses the model to predict how each music track can be altered spectrally to reduce tinnitus for that specific tinnitus profile. Delivering the treatment using headphones that could produce high frequencies (above 10–12 kHz) was an integral part of treatment effectiveness. With such headphones, the treatment could work by taking advantage of the same kind of brain plasticity that may contribute to the person's tinnitus in the first place without being limited by a lack of high-frequency sounds.8 By incorporating the latest tinnitus research into our software, we developed a treatment approach that provides greater promise in treating tinnitus than existing treatments with a one-size-fits-all approach.
Many drugs have been studied for treating tinnitus. For some, treatment with low doses of anti-anxiety drugs -- such as Valium or antidepressants such as Elavil -- help reduce tinnitus. The use of a steroid placed into the middle ear along with an anti-anxiety medicine called alprazolam has been shown to be effective for some people. Some small studies have shown that a hormone called misoprostol may be helpful in some cases.
Almost every ENT, audiology practice, and hearing aid dispenser who claims to offer tinnitus treatment only offers one solution: hearing aids. While amplification may help some, only 50% of people living with tinnitus experience hearing loss that affects their understanding of speech, which means hearing aids are ineffective. At Sound Relief, we offer only evidence-based options like sound therapy and have seen countless patients experience life-changing results.
FACT: Many people with tinnitus will also have a hearing loss. In fact, a recent French study showed that of 123 people with tinnitus surveyed only one did not have hearing loss. The British Tinnitus Association estimates that 90 percent of people with tinnitus also have a hearing loss. Moreover, research says that those who don’t may have a “hidden hearing loss.”
Tinnitus is the perception of sound when no actual external noise is present. While it is commonly referred to as “ringing in the ears,” tinnitus can manifest many different perceptions of sound, including buzzing, hissing, whistling, swooshing, and clicking. In some rare cases, tinnitus patients report hearing music. Tinnitus can be both an acute (temporary) condition or a chronic (ongoing) health malady.