Currently there is no cure for most cases of tinnitus. Depending on the type of tinnitus, symptoms will tend to come and go over time. Stress level, diet, and exposure to noise can worsen tinnitus. Many people find their tinnitus annoying but can learn to adapt without difficulty. It is likely that if you have had tinnitus, you will have it again in the future.
To understand what causes tinnitus, you first need to understand what tinnitus is. Tinnitus is, very simply, unexplainable noises you hear in your head when there is no actual sound present. A person with tinnitus will often hear a whistling, humming, buzzing, whooshing, clicking or ringing in their ears, even when there is nothing in the area that is emitting that particular sound. It may be intermittent or last only a short time or never seem to stop.
Tinnitus is a symptom, not a disease. Most cases are due to damage to the microscopic endings of the sensory nerve in the inner ear, commonly from exposure to loud noise (as from amplified music or gunfire). Other causes include allergy, high or low blood pressure, a tumor, diabetes, thyroid dysfunction, and head or neck injury. In addition, some drugs, including aspirin and other anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, sedatives, and antidepressants can also cause tinnitus. If so, changing drugs or lowering the dosage usually helps.
The most common noise is the sound of rapid or turbulent blood flow in major vessels of the neck. This abnormal blood flow may occur because of a reduced red blood cell count (anemia) or a blockage of the arteries (atherosclerosis) and may be worsened in people with poorly controlled high blood pressure (hypertension). Some small tumors of the middle ear called glomus tumors are rich in blood vessels. Although the tumors are small, they are very near the sound-receiving structures of the ear, and blood flow through them can sometimes be heard (only in one ear). Sometimes, blood vessel malformations that involve abnormal connections between arteries and veins (arteriovenous malformations) develop in the membrane covering the brain (the dura). If these malformations are near the ear, the person sometimes can hear blood flowing through them.
To keep the brain activated and aware, Kilgard’s therapy involves stimulating the vagus nerve, which is actually a pair of nerves that runs inside the neck and into the brain. “All the stuff you brains learns about your body — it all comes in through the vagus nerve,” he says. “We trick the brain into thinking it’s learning something important by stimulating this nerve in the neck.”
If the source of the problem remains unclear, you may be sent to an otologist or an otolaryngologist (both ear specialists) or an audiologist (a hearing specialist) for hearing and nerve tests. As part of your examination, you may be given a hearing test called an audiogram. An imaging technique, such as an MRI or a CT scan, may also be recommended to reveal any structural problem.
Antidepressants. Antidepressants, such as nortriptyline and amitriptyline, have been used as mood enhancers to help someone with tinnitus cope with the life changing implications and complications it brings. However, they are often only prescribed in the most severe of tinnitus cases as they carry some serious side effects that might not make them worth taking for everyone. These include blurred vision, heart problems, dry mouth and constipation.
Tinnitus retraining therapy is a form of treatment that tries to retrain the nerve pathways associated with hearing that may allow the brain to get used to the abnormal sounds. Habituation allows the brain to ignore the tinnitus noise signal, and it allows the person to become unaware that it is present unless they specifically concentrate on the noise. This treatment involves counseling and wearing a sound generator. Audiologists and otolaryngologists often work together in offering this treatment.
Other causes of tinnitus include middle ear infections, disorders that block the ear canal (such as an external ear infection [external otitis], excessive ear wax, or foreign bodies), problems with the eustachian tube (which connects the middle ear and the back of the nose) due to allergies or other causes of obstruction, otosclerosis (a disorder of excess bone growth in the middle ear), and temporomandibular disorders. An uncommon but serious cause is an acoustic neuroma, a noncancerous (benign) tumor of part of the nerve leading from the inner ear.
ABR (ABR) testing may show some subtle abnormalities in otherwise normal persons with tinnitus (Kehrle et al, 2008). The main use of ABR (ABR test) is to assist in diagnosing tinnitus due to a tumor of the 8th nerve or tinnitus due to a central process. A brain MRI is used for the same general purpose and covers far more territory, but is roughly 3 times more expensive. ABRs are generally not different between patients with tinnitus with or without hyperacusis (Shim et al, 2017).
Seek out cognitive-behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, involves working with a clinician (or independently, with a clinically-developed self-treatment program) to re-frame negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. CBT is effective with a wide range of physical and mental health conditions, including stress, anxiety, and depression. CBT is also highly effective in treating insomnia and other sleep problems. And research shows CBT can help improve the management of tinnitus.
It’s the same mechanism that’s happening in people who feel a phantom limb sensation after losing a limb, explains Susan Shore, PhD, a professor of otolaryngology, molecular physiology, and biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. With tinnitus the loss of hearing causes specific brain neurons to increase their activity as a way of compensating, she explains. “These neurons also synchronize their activity as they would if there were a sound there, but there is no external sound,” she adds.
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.
Note however that tinnitus nearly always consists of fairly simple sounds -- for example, hearing someone talking that no one else can hear would not ordinarily be called tinnitus -- this would be called an auditory hallucination. Musical hallucinations in patients without psychiatric disturbance is most often described in older persons, years after hearing loss.
Serenade by SoundCure is based on S-tones. The MP3 player-like device was developed through research from the University of California, Irvine, where it was proven that the temporal-patterned sounds produced by SoundCure can suppress a patient’s tinnitus. Instead of drowning out tinnitus with another sound played at a louder volume, it actively reduces the condition. The therapy is custom-designed by a patient’s audiologist following testing.
While there are many different FDA-approved treatments for tinnitus available, the most important component is finding the right partner (i.e. a Doctor of Audiology), who will work closely with you to help explain your tinnitus and treatment progress over time. In order for the options below to be as successful as possible, the proper support and guidance from an experienced tinnitus specialist is mandatory.
Counseling helps you learn how to live with your tinnitus. Most counseling programs have an educational component to help you understand what goes on in the brain to cause tinnitus. Some counseling programs also will help you change the way you think about and react to your tinnitus. You might learn some things to do on your own to make the noise less noticeable, to help you relax during the day, or to fall asleep at night.
Shelly-Anne Li is the VP of clinical research and operations at Sound Options Tinnitus Treatments Inc. As a research methodology consultant for various projects, she brings expertise in health research methods, as well as experience from conducting multi-site randomized controlled trials, mixed methods studies and qualitative research. Shelly-Anne Li is currently a PhD candidate at University of Toronto, and obtained her MSc (health sciences) from McMaster University.