Tinnitus is usually described as a ringing in the ears, but it can also sound like clicking, hissing, roaring, or buzzing. Tinnitus involves perceiving sound when no external noise is present. The sound can be very soft or very loud, and high-pitched or low-pitched. Some people hear it in one ear and others hear it in both. People with severe tinnitus may have problems hearing, working, or sleeping.
Tinnitus can arise anywhere along the auditory pathway, from the outer ear through the middle and inner ear to the brain's auditory cortex, where it's thought to be encoded (in a sense, imprinted). One of the most common causes of tinnitus is damage to the hair cells in the cochlea (see "Auditory pathways and tinnitus"). These cells help transform sound waves into nerve signals. If the auditory pathways or circuits in the brain don't receive the signals they're expecting from the cochlea, the brain in effect "turns up the gain" on those pathways in an effort to detect the signal — in much the same way that you turn up the volume on a car radio when you're trying to find a station's signal. The resulting electrical noise takes the form of tinnitus — a sound that is high-pitched if hearing loss is in the high-frequency range and low-pitched if it's in the low-frequency range. This kind of tinnitus resembles phantom limb pain in an amputee — the brain is producing abnormal nerve signals to compensate for missing input.
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.
^ Tyler RS, Pienkowski M, Roncancio ER, Jun HJ, Brozoski T, Dauman N, Dauman N, Andersson G, Keiner AJ, Cacace AT, Martin N, Moore BC (2014). "A review of hyperacusis and future directions: part I. Definitions and manifestations" (PDF). American Journal of Audiology. 23 (4): 402–19. doi:10.1044/2014_AJA-14-0010. PMID 25104073. Archived (PDF) from the original on May 9, 2018. Retrieved September 23, 2017.
Experts believe that tinnitus is associated with neural (brain and nerve) injuries that affect the auditory pathway and therefore someone’s ability to hear sounds. (10) Most of the time, tinnitus is a result of a disorder that affects parts of either the outer, inner or middle ear. The good news is that the majority of cases are not linked to any serious illness, although some cases are.
Tinnitus is characterized by ringing or buzzing in the ears. Exposure to loud noises, earwax blockages, heart or blood vessel issues, prescription medications, and thyroid disorders can all cause tinnitus. See your doctor for an accurate diagnosis, and work with them to develop a treatment plan. In many cases, tinnitus is irreversible, but there are several ways to reduce its severity. For instance, sound generators, hearing aids, and medication can help mask ringing or buzzing. Tinnitus research is a constantly evolving field, and you might be able to try experimental therapies as well.
There seems to be a two-way-street relationship between tinnitus and sleep problems. The symptoms of tinnitus can interfere with sleeping well—and poor sleep can make tinnitus more aggravating and difficult to manage effectively. In the same study that found a majority of people with tinnitus had a sleep disorder, the scientists also found that the presence of sleep disorders made tinnitus more disruptive.
Tinnitus (pronounced tin-NY-tus or TIN-u-tus) is not a disease. It is a symptom that something is wrong in the auditory system, which includes the ear, the auditory nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain, and the parts of the brain that process sound. Something as simple as a piece of earwax blocking the ear canal can cause tinnitus. But it can also be the result of a number of health conditions, such as:
Identifying And Treating Any Vascular Issues. There is a very small chance that your tinnitus is being caused by an underlying blood vessel condition known as pulsatile tinnitus. Sometimes this condition is caused by pregnancy or strenuous exercise and other times it’s the result of a single blood vessel or a group of blood vessels experiencing increased blood flow that the rest of the body is not experiencing. On rare occurrences, the cause is a benign tumor known as an acoustic neuroma (AKA vestibular schwannoma). These tumors, although very rare, can cause the development of abnormal blood vessels which can result in pulsatile tinnitus. Treatment options include medication and surgery.
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.”
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.
Seek treatment for hearing problems. If you’re experiencing difficulty hearing, talk to your physician and seek help from an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose throat specialist) or an audiologist. In addition to addressing any underlying health issue and improving your quality of life, improving your hearing can make tinnitus less noticeable and less bothersome, during the day and at night when you’re trying to sleep.
Addressing Any TMJ Disorders. A small percentage of people will experience tinnitus if they are having problems with their temporomandibular joint. This joint is located in front of the ears, on each side of the head, where the lower jawbone meets the skull. In these rare cases, a dental treatment or bite realignment may relieve you of the ringing you hear in your ears.
It is possible that the most common cause of pulsatile tinnitus is sigmoid sinus diverticulum and dehiscence, which can be collectively referred to as sinus wall abnormalities or SSWA. The sigmoid sinus is a blood carrying channel on the side of the brain that receives blood from veins within the brain. The blood eventually exits through the internal jugular vein. Sigmoid sinus diverticulum refers to the formation of small sac-like pouches (diverticula) that protrude through the wall of the sigmoid sinus into the mastoid bone behind the ear. Dehiscence refers to absence of part of the bone that surrounds the sigmoid sinus in the mastoid. It is unknown whether these conditions represent different parts of one disease process or spectrum, or whether they are two distinct conditions. These abnormalities cause pressure, blood flow, and noise changes within the sigmoid sinus, which ultimately results in pulsatile tinnitus. Narrowing of the blood vessel that leads into the sigmoid sinus, known as the transverse sinus, has also been associated with pulsatile tinnitus.
Repeated loud noise exposure can be a cause of tinnitus as well as hearing loss. Loud music may cause short term symptoms, but repeated occupational exposure (for example, musicians, factory and construction workers) requires less intense sound levels to cause potential hearing damage leading to tinnitus. Minimizing sound exposure, therefore, decreases the risk of developing tinnitus. Sound protection equipment, like acoustic ear-muffs, may be appropriate at work and at home when exposed to loud noises.
Acoustic Neural Stimulation. This relatively new treatment has shown to be effective in reducing, and in some cases eliminating, symptoms in patients whose tinnitus just won’t go away or is very loud. The treatment utilizes a device small enough to fit into the palm of your hand that delivers a broadband acoustical signal embedded in special music you can listen to via headphones. The treatment eventually desensitizes you to the ringing in your ears by stimulating changes in the neural circuits in your brain.
If the cause of your tinnitus is excessive earwax, your doctor will clean out your ears by suction with a small curved instrument called a curette, or gently flush it out with warm water. If you have an ear infection, you may be given prescription ear drops containing hydrocortisone to help relieve the itching and an antibiotic to fight the infection.