The cause of tinnitus may be difficult to determine. Your doctor will ask if you have been exposed to loud noise at work or home and will ask about medications you take, including all herbs and supplements. He or she may look in your ears to see if you have wax blockage or if the eardrum appears abnormal. If your hearing is affected, then your doctor may have you undergo a hearing test called an audiogram to measure your hearing ability in each ear.
Tinnitus is not a disease but a symptom that can result from a number of underlying causes. One of the most common causes is noise-induced hearing loss. Other causes include ear infections, disease of the heart or blood vessels, Ménière's disease, brain tumors, emotional stress, exposure to certain medications, a previous head injury, and earwax. It is more common in those with depression.
Tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT). This technique is based on the assumption that tinnitus results from abnormal neuronal activity (see "What's going on?"). The aim is to habituate the auditory system to the tinnitus signals, making them less noticeable or less bothersome. The main components of TRT are individual counseling (to explain the auditory system, how tinnitus develops, and how TRT can help) and sound therapy. A device is inserted in the ear to generate low-level noise and environmental sounds that match the pitch, volume, and quality of the patient's tinnitus. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, treatment may last one to two years.
The use of sound therapy by either hearing aids or tinnitus maskers helps the brain ignore the specific tinnitus frequency. Although these methods are poorly supported by evidence, there are no negative effects. There is some tentative evidence supporting tinnitus retraining therapy. There is little evidence supporting the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation. It is thus not recommended. As of 2017 there was limited evidence as to whether neurofeedback is or is not helpful.
Most tinnitus is subjective, meaning that only you can hear the noise. But sometimes it's objective, meaning that someone else can hear it, too. For example, if you have a heart murmur, you may hear a whooshing sound with every heartbeat; your clinician can also hear that sound through a stethoscope. Some people hear their heartbeat inside the ear — a phenomenon called pulsatile tinnitus. It's more likely to happen in older people, because blood flow tends to be more turbulent in arteries whose walls have stiffened with age. Pulsatile tinnitus may be more noticeable at night, when you're lying in bed and there are fewer external sounds to mask the tinnitus. If you notice any new pulsatile tinnitus, you should consult a clinician, because in rare cases it is a sign of a tumor or blood vessel damage.
Tinnitus can be extremely disturbing to people who have it. In many cases it is not a serious health problem, but rather a nuisance that may go away. However, some people with tinnitus may require medical or surgical treatment. Sixteen million Americans seek medical treatment each year for tinnitus, and about one-quarter of those experience it so severely it interferes with their daily activities.
Technology and portable music devices also contribute to noise pollution, especially in younger people. Keep the volume of your phone, MP3 players or iPod on the lower end when listening to headphones, and don’t play very loud noises for long durations of time. To aid in tinnitus treatment, look out for changes in your ability to hear if you’re frequently exposed to loud noises, limit use of headphones or consider wearing earplugs.
The exact biological process by which hearing loss is associated with tinnitus is still being investigated by researchers. However, we do know that the loss of certain sound frequencies leads to specific changes in how the brain processes sound. In short, as the brain receives less external stimuli around a specific frequency, it begins to adapt and change. Tinnitus may be the brain’s way of filling in the missing sound frequencies it no longer receives from the auditory system.
Glenn Schweitzer is an entrepreneur, blogger, and the author of Rewiring Tinnitus and Mind over Meniere’s. He is passionate about helping others who suffer from tinnitus and vestibular disorders and volunteers as an Ambassador Board Member for the Vestibular Disorders Association (VEDA). Through his blogs, he continues raise awareness for tinnitus, Meniere’s disease, and other vestibular disorders, spreading his message of hope to those in need.
CBT involves working with a therapist or counselor, typically once per week, to identify and change negative thought patterns. CBT was initially developed as a treatment for depression and other psychological problems, but it seems to work well for people with tinnitus. Several studies and meta-reviews, including one published in the Korean Journal of Audiology, have found that CBT significantly improves irritation and annoyance that often comes with tinnitus.
Tinnitus is believed to be caused by inner ear cell damage. Cilia in your inner ear move in relation to the pressure of sound waves. This triggers these cells to release an electrical signal through a nerve from your ear (auditory nerve) to your brain. Your brain interprets these signals as sound. If the hairs inside your inner ear are bent or broken, they can "leak" random electrical impulses to your brain, causing tinnitus.
It is also very common for jaw opening to change the loudness or frequency of tinnitus. This is likely a variant of somatic modulation of tinnitus (see above). The sensory input from the jaw evidently interacts with hearing pathways. The muscles that open the jaw are innervated by the same nerve, the motor branch of 5, that controls the tensor tympani in the ear. In other words, changing tension in the jaw may also change muscle tension in the ear.
In Canada, the level of funding or engagement towards tackling the problem of tinnitus is comparably minimal. But with recent headlines about the effects of tinnitus on those in police forces2 and frustration among veterans, this may change. Because of the progress made in tinnitus treatment and management research – including work done right here in Canada – the time is right to offer tinnitus sufferers effective options and the support they need. While many with tinnitus are not yet aware that there are ways to reduce or manage the constant ringing, hissing or buzzing in their ears, as more health care professionals make effective options available, word will spread. In time, tinnitus and its impact on quality of life can be reduced.
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!
Another example of somatic tinnitus is that caused by temperomandibular joint disorder. The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is where the lower jaw connects to the skull, and is located in front of the ears. Damage to the muscles, ligaments, or cartilage in the TMJ can lead to tinnitus symptoms. The TMJ is adjacent to the auditory system and shares some ligaments and nerve connections with structures in the middle ear.
Along the path a hearing signal travels to get from the inner ear to the brain, there are many places where things can go wrong to cause tinnitus. If scientists can understand what goes on in the brain to start tinnitus and cause it to persist, they can look for those places in the system where a therapeutic intervention could stop tinnitus in its tracks.
But it’s still a significant improvement. And Kilgard says he and others are working to make the treatment even more effective. He suspects this type of therapy is not too far off from being available to patients outside of research studies. “It’s in the late stages of development,” he says. “It could be available to the public in as little as a year or two.”
Exposure to loud noise: Loud noise exposure is a very common cause of tinnitus today, and it often damages hearing as well. Unfortunately, many people are unconcerned about the harmful effects of excessively loud noise from firearms, high intensity music, or other sources. Twenty-six million American adults have suffered noise-induced hearing loss, according to the NIDCD.
It’s been found that exposure to very loud noises can contribute to early hearing loss and ear problems. Loud sounds can include those from heavy machinery or construction equipment (such as sledge hammers, chain saws and firearms). Even gun shots, car accidents, or very loud concerts and events can trigger acute tinnitus, although this should go away within a couple days in some cases. (5)
The sound you hear is actually being generated by the part of your ear known as the cochlea. It’s a very complicated organ with sensory hairs, internal fluid and nerve receptors, that when damaged (or as it naturally degrades as you get older), can cause it to send incorrect input into your brain. In layman’s terms, because it’s no longer working as well as it used to, it thinks there’s a ringing sound in the area and tells your brain to generate that sound in your head. There are other symptoms of tinnitus, but this is the main one.
Schecklmann et al (2014) suggested that tinnitus is associated with alterations in motor cortex excitability, by pooling several studies, and reported that there are differences in intracortical inhibition, intra-cortical facilitation, and cortical silent period. We doubt that this means that motor cortex excitability causes tinnitus, but rather we suspect that these findings reflect features of brain organization that may predispose certain persons to develop tinnitus over someone else.
Most people develop tinnitus as a symptom of hearing loss. When you lose hearing, your brain undergoes changes in the way it processes sound frequencies. A hearing aid is a small electronic device that uses a microphone, amplifier, and speaker to increase the volume of external noises. This can mollify neuroplastic changes in the brain’s ability to process sound.
A diagnosis of tinnitus is based upon identification of characteristic symptoms, a detailed patient history, a thorough clinical evaluation and complete audiologic testing. These steps will help to differentiate rhythmic tinnitus from non-rhythmic tinnitus. It cannot be overemphasized that tinnitus is a symptom of another underlying condition and not a diagnosis in and of itself. Because of the high number of underlying causes of tinnitus, a variety of specialized tests to detect the specific cause may be necessary. Attempting to identify the underlying cause of tinnitus is the first step in evaluating a person with tinnitus.
A poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, lack of sleep and chronic stress are all capable of reducing immunity and making you susceptible to nerve damage, allergies and ear problems. If you frequently experience seasonal or food allergies that affect your ears, ear infections, swelling and other problems related to damage of the vestibular system, consider changing your diet, exercise routine and ways of dealing with stress, which in turn will aid your tinnitus treatment. Try natural stress relievers like exercising, yoga, meditation, taking warm baths, using essential oils and spending more time outdoors, and eat an anti-inflammatory diet.
Pulsatile tinnitus is a rare type of tinnitus that sounds like a rhythmic pulsing in the ear, usually in time with your heartbeat. A doctor may be able to hear it by pressing a stethoscope against your neck or by placing a tiny microphone inside the ear canal. This kind of tinnitus is most often caused by problems with blood flow in the head or neck. Pulsatile tinnitus also may be caused by brain tumors or abnormalities in brain structure.
As a hearing healthcare provider, I regularly get asked about a cure for tinnitus. Trust me, if there was one, I would be using it! I have had tinnitus for more than seven years. It makes it hard to sleep, to concentrate, to read a book. Basically, anything that is normally done in quiet became a struggle for me. (To see how tinnitus is affecting you, take our free tinnitus test.)
Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) syndrome is a disorder that causes symptoms like pain, clicking, and popping of the jaw. TMJ is caused by injury to the temporomandibular joint. Stress, poor posture, jaw trauma, genetic predisposition, and inflammatory disorders are risk factors for the condition. A variety of self-care measures (application of ice, use of over-the-counter pain medication, massage, relaxation techniques) and medical treatment options (dental splint, Botox, prescription medications, surgery) are available to manage TMJ. The prognosis of TMJ is good with proper treatment.
Smoking. Contrary to popular belief, there are some external irritants that can cause tinnitus. For example, Nicotine has been proven to be an irritant that can cause someone to develop a ringing in their ears. Smokers may find that their chances of developing the condition may be higher than someone who is a non-smoker. If you’re suffering from tinnitus right now, and you’re a smoker, please quit as soon as possible. If that’s just not an option for you right now, be sure to at least pick up an over the counter tinnitus treatment that will dramatically reduce the ringing in your ears.
Loud noise exposure: Being exposed to occupational loud noise on a regular basis from heavy equipment, chain saws or firearms is a common cause of tinnitus. However, even if you don’t work in a noisy environment, you can still suffer the effects of noise exposure by listening to loud music through headphones, attending live music performances frequently and engaging in noisy hobbies.