The noise heard by people with tinnitus may be a buzzing, ringing, roaring, whistling, or hissing sound and is often associated with hearing loss. Some people hear more complex sounds that may be different at different times. These sounds are more noticeable in a quiet environment and when people are not concentrating on something else. Thus, tinnitus tends to be most disturbing to people when they are trying to sleep. However, the experience of tinnitus is highly individual. Some people are very disturbed by their symptoms, whereas others find them quite bearable.
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.
Most people who suffer from tinnitus also experience hearing loss to some degree. As they often accompany one another, the two conditions may be correlated. In fact, some researchers believe that subjective tinnitus can only occur if the auditory system has been previously damaged (source). The loss of certain sound frequencies due to hearing loss may change how the brain processes sound, causing it to adapt and fill in the gaps with tinnitus. The underlying hearing loss typically results from exposure to loud noises or advanced age:
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.
Until recently, most tinnitus patients had little reason to believe doctors would ever be able to completely cure or reverse the affliction. Drug therapies had consistently failed, and so had more invasive procedures — including some surgeries to remove the auditory nerve that transmits sound from the ear to the brain, according to past research. (1,2)
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.
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