Tinnitus sufferers most often cite stress as the cause of their condition. While it’s true noises are perceived more acutely when you are tense, there is no scientific basis for saying stress causes tinnitus. But the reverse is definitely true — hearing a constant noise in your ears can certainly cause stress and anxiety, and even lead to depression in some cases.
Tinnitus is a non-curable, invisible and debilitating hearing disorder that can take on many different forms – ringing, hissing, buzzing, and even the sound of crickets. Almost everyone has experienced brief periods of mild tinnitus, but for many, this sound can be permanent. Over 360,000 Canadians report suffering from chronic tinnitus, and almost half of those are severely affected.1 In the US, over 16 million tinnitus sufferers seek treatment every year.2 Tinnitus is the number one disability claim for US veterans3 and has also become the top disability claim for current and former male RCMP members.4 This persistent sound can have a serious impact on quality of life; leading to sleep deprivation, depression, anxiety, and even suicide. What adds to the challenges faced by tinnitus sufferers is a lack of knowledge, support and options available to them. Unfortunately, there are currently too few health care professionals providing services to tinnitus sufferers who are seeking ways to manage their tinnitus. Unfortunately, the phrase “learn to live with it” is still heard far too often by those that seek help for 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.
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.
The physician may also request an OAE test (which is very sensitive to noise induced hearing damage), an ECochG (looking for Meniere's disease and hydrops, an MRI/MRA test (scan of the brain), a VEMP (looking for damage to other parts of the ear) and several blood tests (ANA, B12, FTA, ESR, SMA-24, HBA-IC, fasting glucose, TSH, anti-microsomal antibodies).
Even with all of these associated conditions and causes, some people develop tinnitus for no obvious reason. Most of the time, tinnitus isn’t a sign of a serious health problem, although if it’s loud or doesn’t go away, it can cause fatigue, depression, anxiety, and problems with memory and concentration. For some, tinnitus can be a source of real mental and emotional anguish.
Tinnitus patients with a TMJ disorder will experience pain in the face and/or jaw, limited ability to move the jaw, and regular popping sounds while chewing or talking. A dentist, craniofacial surgeon, or other oral health professional can appropriately diagnose and often fix TMJ issues. In many scenarios, fixing the TMJ disorder will alleviate tinnitus symptoms.
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.
Spontaneous otoacoustic emissions (SOAEs), which are faint high-frequency tones that are produced in the inner ear and can be measured in the ear canal with a sensitive microphone, may also cause tinnitus. About 8% of those with SOAEs and tinnitus have SOAE-linked tinnitus,[need quotation to verify] while the percentage of all cases of tinnitus caused by SOAEs is estimated at about 4%.
To answer your question about NAC (N-acetyl-L-cysteine), I’ve seen little evidence suggesting that is effective for tinnitus. Instead – though the research is very limited – multiple anecdotal reports describe success with the herb ginkgo biloba. Try taking two tablets of standardized extract of ginkgo three times a day with meals (no more than a total dose of 240 mg a day). Ginkgo may work by increasing blood circulation to the head and neck. Give it at least a two-month trial. You might also explore cranial therapy, a gentle manipulative technique performed by osteopathic physicians. This approach seems to take the pressure or irritation off the auditory nerves. If high blood pressure is responsible for your tinnitus, try to get that under control through diet, exercise, and weight loss or medication if necessary.
If cerumen (more commonly known as ear wax) accumulates in your ear canal, it can diminish your ability to hear. Your auditory system may overcompensate for the loss, fabricating noises that do not exist. Your audiologist can safely remove the buildup, and in most cases, this will immediately alleviate your tinnitus. However, sometimes ear wax buildup causes permanent damage, resulting in chronic tinnitus.
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.
Supporting the idea that central reorganization is overestimated as "the" cause of tinnitus, a recent study by Wineland et al showed no changes in central connectivity of auditory cortex or other key cortical regions (Wineland et al, 2012). Considering other parts of the brain, Ueyama et al (2013) reported that there was increased fMRI activity in the bilateral rectus gyri, as well as cingulate gyri correlating with distress. Loudness was correlated with values in the thalamus, bilateral hippocampus and left caudate. In other words, the changes in the brain associated with tinnitus seem to be associated with emotional reaction (e.g. cingulate), and input systems (e.g. thalamus). There are a few areas whose role is not so obvious (e.g. caudate). This makes a more sense than the Wineland result, but of course, they were measuring different things. MRI studies related to audition or dizziness must be interpreted with great caution as the magnetic field of the MRI stimulates the inner ear, and because MRI scanners are noisy.
Hearing (audiological) exam. As part of the test, you'll sit in a soundproof room wearing earphones through which will be played specific sounds into one ear at a time. You'll indicate when you can hear the sound, and your results are compared with results considered normal for your age. This can help rule out or identify possible causes of tinnitus.
Some patients question the value of treatments that fall short of an absolute cure. ATA believes patients should do everything possible to lessen the burden of tinnitus until a definitive cure is found. An appropriate analogy may be the use of ibuprofen for a headache. Ibuprofen itself does not cure the underlying cause of most headaches, but it does reduce the pain that makes headaches feel so awful. Likewise, the most effective tinnitus treatment tools address the aspects of tinnitus that so often make the condition feel burdensome: anxiety, stress, social isolation, sound sensitivity, hearing difficulties, and perceived volume.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT uses techniques such as cognitive restructuring and relaxation to change the way patients think about and respond to tinnitus. Patients usually keep a diary and perform "homework" to help build their coping skills. Therapy is generally short-term — for example, weekly sessions for two to six months. A 2010 review of six studies by the Cochrane Collaboration (an international group of health authorities who evaluate randomized trials) found that after CBT, the sound was no less loud, but it was significantly less bothersome, and patients' quality of life improved.
Traumatic brain injury, caused by concussive shock, can damage the brain’s auditory processing areas and generate tinnitus symptoms. TBI is one of the major catalysts for tinnitus in military and veteran populations. Nearly 60% of all tinnitus cases diagnosed by the U.S. Veterans Administration are attributable to mild-to-severe traumatic brain injuries.
However, the multidisciplinary approach based on CBT is not a “cure for tinnitus”, as implied in some papers, but rather a system for managing its symptoms and effects on people’s lives. The differences in outcomes between the treatment and usual care groups were quite small, with the multidisciplinary approach giving a small improvement in quality of life compared with usual care, and moderate improvements in tinnitus severity and impairment. Also, less than 70% of participants completed the trial to 12 months, and this could have affected the reliability of the study’s overall results. Furthermore, as the patients in the study were only followed for 12 months, it is uncertain whether this approach can help in the longer term.
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 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)
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.
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.
The degree of loudness or annoyance caused by tinnitus varies greatly from one individual to another. Loudness and annoyance do not always covary. An individual with loud tinnitus may not be troubled, while an individual with soft tinnitus may be debilitated. Most individuals with subjective tinnitus have hearing loss that shows up in a standard clinical audiogram. Tinnitus can sometimes worsen or sometimes improve over time.
No two patients and no two tinnitus cases are alike. As such, the “best” treatment option is often contingent on an array of factors unique to each patient. Moreover, successful management of tinnitus may require overlapping layers of treatment. ATA recommends that patients work with their healthcare provider(s) to identify and implement the treatment strategy that is best suited to their particular needs.
Try meditation and relaxation techniques. Stress can aggravate tinnitus, so take deep breaths and relax if you start to feel anxious, worried, or overwhelmed. Count to 4 as you breathe in slowly, hold your breath for a 4 count, then count to 4 as you slowly exhale. Continue to control your breathing for 1 to 2 minutes, or until you feel at ease.
Wearable sound generators are small electronic devices that fit in the ear and use a soft, pleasant sound to help mask the tinnitus. Some people want the masking sound to totally cover up their tinnitus, but most prefer a masking level that is just a bit louder than their tinnitus. The masking sound can be a soft “shhhhhhhhhhh,” random tones, or music.
Tinnitus is the perception of sound when no actual external noise is present. While it is commonly referred to as “ringing in the ears,” tinnitus can manifest many different perceptions of sound, including buzzing, hissing, whistling, swooshing, and clicking. In some rare cases, tinnitus patients report hearing music. Tinnitus can be both an acute (temporary) condition or a chronic (ongoing) health malady.