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:
Masking Devices. Similar to the white noise machines listed above, there are now masking devices that can be worn in the ear, just like a hearing aid, that do almost the same thing. They produce low-level white noise that can suppresses your tinnitus symptoms by training your brain to focus on them instead of the ringing in your ears. These are perfect if you can’t always have a white noise machine running near you.
Some persons with severe TMJ (temporomandibular joint) arthritis have severe tinnitus. Generally these persons say that there is a "screeching" sound. This is another somatic tinnitus. TMJ is extremely common -- about 25% of the population. The exact prevalence of TMJ associated tinnitus is not established, but presumably it is rather high too. Having TMJ increases the odds that you have tinnitus too, by about a factor of 1.6-3.22 (Park and Moon, 2014; Lee et al, 2016). This is the a large risk factor for tinnitus, similar to the risk from hearing loss (see table above).
Tinnitus affects every layer of society, and there has been increasing support for awareness. Recently, musicians who are affected by tinnitus have come together to create awareness for the disorder. Artists including Chris Martin of Coldplay and Black Eyed Peas have created a compilation album to help raise funds towards finding a cure for tinnitus. In the United States, the Department of Defense has invested millions of dollars into investigations of tinnitus sound therapies. In addition, the American Tinnitus Association makes efforts to lobby the US government to provide support for tinnitus sufferers.
If your tinnitus is a symptom of an underlying medical condition, the first step is to treat that condition. But if the tinnitus remains after treatment, or if it results from exposure to loud noise, health professionals recommend various non-medical options that may help reduce or mask the unwanted noise (See Masking Devices below). Sometimes, tinnitus goes away spontaneously, without any intervention at all. It should be understood, however, that not all tinnitus can be eliminated or reduced, no matter the cause.
Experts recommend that patients with severe tinnitus become educated about tinnitus and how they best deal with its symptoms. This can include learning about biofeedback in order to control stress and your reaction to tinnitus sounds, talking with a counselor, or joining a support group. Coping strategies are most useful for managing emotional side effects of tinnitus, such as anxiety, trouble sleeping, lack of focus and depression.
Some instances of tinnitus are caused by infections or blockages in the ear, and the tinnitus can disappear once the underlying cause is treated. Frequently, however, tinnitus continues after the underlying condition is treated. In such a case, other therapies -- both conventional and alternative -- may bring significant relief by either decreasing or covering up the unwanted sound.
Tinnitus can be caused by a variety of less common underlying conditions or injuries. If you have tinnitus, start your treatment path by seeking out a hearing healthcare professional who specializes in tinnitus diagnostics so they can help identify the underlying cause. If the common causes for tinnitus are ruled out, the practitioner will refer you to another specialist for further evaluation. Listed below are related medical specialties who might be able to help you determine the cause of your tinnitus.
While tinnitus is as varied as its causes, it can be grouped into two categories: tonal and non-tonal. Tonal tinnitus is more common and describes the perception of a near-continuous sound or overlapping sounds with a well-defined frequency (e.g., whistling, ringing, buzzing). Non-tonal forms of tinnitus include humming, clicking, crackling, and rumbling.
Psychological research has looked at the tinnitus distress reaction (TDR) to account for differences in tinnitus severity. These findings suggest that at the initial perception of tinnitus, conditioning links tinnitus with negative emotions, such as fear and anxiety from unpleasant stimuli at the time. This enhances activity in the limbic system and autonomic nervous system, thus increasing tinnitus awareness and annoyance.
Ear protection can mitigate the negative effects of loud noises and prevent the exacerbation of tinnitus. This is especially important if you work in a loud environment or regularly visit loud places, like shooting ranges, concerts, and clubs. Wearing custom earplugs or special earmuffs can go a long way toward preventing your tinnitus from worsening.
Masking. Masking devices, worn like hearing aids, generate low-level white noise (a high-pitched hiss, for example) that can reduce the perception of tinnitus and sometimes also produce residual inhibition — less noticeable tinnitus for a short time after the masker is turned off. A specialized device isn't always necessary for masking; often, playing music or having a radio, fan, or white-noise machine on in the background is enough. Although there's not enough evidence from randomized trials to draw any conclusions about the effectiveness of masking, hearing experts often recommend a trial of simple masking strategies (such as setting a radio at low volume between stations) before they turn to more expensive options.
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.
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.
Acoustic neuroma: This is a rare subjective cause of tinnitus, and includes a certain type of brain tumor known as an acoustic neuroma. The tumors grow on the nerve that supplies hearing and can cause tinnitus. This type of the condition usually are only noticed in one ear, unlike the more common sort caused by hearing loss usually seen in both ears. Causes of objective tinnitus are usually easier to find.
A wealth of research has gone into understanding the mechanisms of tinnitus due to the increased concern in our ageing and noise exposed society through the support of organizations such as the Tinnitus Research Institute, the American Tinnitus Association and even the US Department of Defense. This research has helped us to understand not only why and how this phantom percept can develop, but also sheds light on why it may sound like a hiss for one person and a high pitched tone for another.7 In addition, neuroscientists have shown connections between the limbic system (where emotions are processed) and the auditory system; it is not uncommon for tinnitus to increase during times of stress or negative emotions.5 As such, the effective tinnitus treatment strategies should be enjoyable and positive, and should account for the variability in what tinnitus sounds like for each patient.
Some tinnitus sufferers have experienced relief through hearing aids, but studies indicate that such benefits are limited to those with low-frequency tinnitus.8 For those with a tinnitus pitch above 5–6 kHz or those with a hissing or buzzing tinnitus, the benefits of hearing aids are more limited or even nonexistent. This makes sense from a neuroscience point of view, as the hearing aid will typically not be making up for hearing loss at frequencies above 6–8 kHz; this prevents any possible effects on tinnitus types that are caused by changes to higher frequency regions in the auditory system. While hearing aids are essential to improving the lives of the hearing impaired, they are not typically the best option for tinnitus; especially when used alone.
In many cases, tinnitus is caused by hyperactivity (or too much activity) in the brain’s auditory cortex. “When there’s damage or a loss of input in the ear [such as hearing loss, head trauma, or a blood vessel problem], the brain tries to turn up certain channels in order to compensate,” Dr. Kilgard explains. When the brain doesn’t get that tuning quite right, the result is tinnitus.
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.
What does he mean by “ends up in the brain”? Essentially, something that causes even temporary hearing damage — such as exposure to very loud noise or a blow to the head — can change activity patterns in the brain in ways that cause the ringing. Even though some damage or problem in the ear triggered tinnitus to begin with, you continue to hear the sound you do because of a signal from the brain.
Objects or insects in the ear can be placed in the ear by patients themselves, or an insect crawling in the ear. Ear wax can also cause ear problems if Q-tips are overused to clean the ears. Symptoms of an object in the ear are inflammation and sensitivity, redness, or discharge of pus or blood. When to seek medical care for an object or insect in the ear is included in the article information.
Although mitochondrial DNA variants are thought to predispose to hearing loss, a study of polish individuals by Lechowicz et al, reported that "there are no statistically significant differences in the prevalence of tinnitus and its characteristic features between HL patients with known HL mtDNA variants and the general Polish population." This would argue against mitochondrial DNA variants as a cause of tinnitus, but the situation might be different in other ethnic groups.
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Tinnitus also could be the result of neural circuits thrown out of balance when damage in the inner ear changes signaling activity in the auditory cortex, the part of the brain that processes sound. Or it could be the result of abnormal interactions between neural circuits. The neural circuits involved in hearing aren’t solely dedicated to processing sound. They also communicate with other parts of the brain, such as the limbic region, which regulates mood and emotion.
Michael Chrostowski, PhD is the founder of Sound Options Tinnitus Treatments Inc. His dedication to improving the lives of tinnitus sufferers drives his vision of providing effective, affordable and accessible treatments for the many tinnitus sufferers he has met throughout his research career. With over 8 years of research in the field of tinnitus and collaborations with leaders in the field, Dr. Chrostowski was able to make use of cutting-edge research to develop software that can customize an effective and personal treatment for tinnitus. Dr. Chrostowski received a BASc in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Toronto and a PhD in neuroscience at McMaster University.
If your doctor cannot find any medical condition responsible for your tinnitus, you may be referred to an otolaryngologist (commonly called an ear, nose, and throat doctor, or an ENT). The ENT will physically examine your head, neck, and ears and test your hearing to determine whether you have any hearing loss along with the tinnitus. You might also be referred to an audiologist who can also measure your hearing and evaluate your tinnitus.
Sound waves travel through the ear canal to the middle and inner ear, where hair cells in part of the cochlea help transform sound waves into electrical signals that then travel to the brain's auditory cortex via the auditory nerve. When hair cells are damaged — by loud noise or ototoxic drugs, for example — the circuits in the brain don't receive the signals they're expecting. This stimulates abnormal activity in the neurons, which results in the illusion of sound, or tinnitus.