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.
There are, however, excellent tools to help patients manage their condition; treatments that reduce the perceived intensity, omnipresence, and burden of tinnitus. These currently available treatments are not “cures” — they neither repair the underlying causes of tinnitus, nor eliminate the tinnitus signal in the brain. Instead, they address the attentional, emotional, and cognitive impact of tinnitus. They help patients live better, more fulfilling, and more productive lives, even if the perception of tinnitus remains.
Though the exact cause of tinnitus — as in the specific mechanism that creates these phantom sounds in some people — remains unknown, contributing factors and triggers have been identified. Excessive exposure to loud noise is often a factor because of the damage done to your auditory system. Tinnitus may also result from jaw-joint dysfunction (e.g., teeth grinding, temporomandibular joint disorder) or chronic neck muscle strain.
Tinnitus is not a disease — it’s a symptom. It’s a sign that something is wrong with your auditory system, which includes your ear, the auditory nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain, and the parts of the brain that process sound. There are a variety of different conditions that can cause tinnitus. One of the most common is noise-induced hearing loss.
Changing Prescriptions, OTC Medications and Food Additives. Sometimes the cause of tinnitus is a prescription (such as an antibiotic), an over the counter medication or a food additive. As an example, two very common prescriptions that have been shown to cause tinnitus are quinine and chloroquine, which are both used to prevent malaria. Certain diuretics and cancer medications can also cause tinnitus. Even something as simple as OTC aspirin can generate tinnitus in some people. The food additives NutraSweet, Splenda and Aspartame have all been linked to tinnitus, and a whole host of other side effects, in clinical studies. These man-made food additives should be eliminated from your diet completely. If any of your medications are causing your tinnitus, your doctor may recommend stopping, reducing or switching them out for other medicines to see if that helps cure your tinnitus.
Cartoon of the middle ear showing muscles that attach to ossicles (ear bones), and ear drum. The stapedius is attached to the stapes (of course -- horseshoe object above), while the tensor tympani is attached to the ear drum. While useful, be aware that there are multiple errors in this illustration from Loyola Medical School. With permission, from: http://www.meddean.luc.edu/lumen/meded/grossanatomy/dissector/mml/images/stap.jpg
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.
In Canada, the level of funding or engagement towards tackling the problem of tinnitus is comparably minimal. But with recent headlines about the effects of tinnitus on those in police forces2 and frustration among veterans, this may change. Because of the progress made in tinnitus treatment and management research – including work done right here in Canada – the time is right to offer tinnitus sufferers effective options and the support they need. While many with tinnitus are not yet aware that there are ways to reduce or manage the constant ringing, hissing or buzzing in their ears, as more health care professionals make effective options available, word will spread. In time, tinnitus and its impact on quality of life can be reduced.
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.
Schecklmann et al (2014) suggested that tinnitus is associated with alterations in motor cortex excitability, by pooling several studies, and reported that there are differences in intracortical inhibition, intra-cortical facilitation, and cortical silent period. We doubt that this means that motor cortex excitability causes tinnitus, but rather we suspect that these findings reflect features of brain organization that may predispose certain persons to develop tinnitus over someone else.
Sound-masking devices provide a pleasant or benign external noise that partially drowns out the internal sound of tinnitus. The traditional sound-masking device is a tabletop sound machine, but there are also small electronic devices that fit in the ear. These devices can play white noise, pink noise, nature noises, music, or other ambient sounds. Most people prefer a level of external sound that is just slightly louder than their tinnitus, but others prefer a masking sound that completely drowns out the ringing.
Herbal home remedies (ginkgo biloba, melatonin), and the vitamin zinc are not recommended by the American Academy of Otolaryngology. Lipo-flavonoid is a supplement being marketed as a way to relieve tinnitus, but there is no current evidence it is effective for most cases of the condition; however, it may be helpful for symptoms of Meniere's disease. Check with your doctor or other health care professional before taking any herbal or over-the-counter (OTC) natural remedies.
Treatment of the underlying primary disorder may help to improve or cure rhythmic tinnitus. For example, the treatment of blood vessel disorders (e.g. dural arteriovenous shunts) can include certain medications or surgery. A surgical procedure known as sinus wall reconstruction can successfully treat pulsatile tinnitus due to sigmoid sinus diverticulum and dehiscence. In fact, most individuals have experienced complete resolution of their tinnitus following this surgery. Surgery may also be necessary for rare cases of pulsatile tinnitus caused by a tumor.
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Antidepressants are occasionally associated with tinnitus (Robinson, 2007). For example, Tandon (1987) reported that 1% of those taking imiprimine complained of tinnitus. In a double-blind trial of paroxetine for tinnitus, 3% discontinued due to a perceived worsening of tinnitus (Robinson, 2007). There are case reports concerning tinnitus as a withdrawal symptom from Venlafaxine and sertraline (Robinson, 2007). In our clinical practice, we have occasionally encountered patients reporting worsening of tinnitus with an antidepressant, generally in the SSRI family.
This well-designed study found that using CBT alongside elements of standard therapy can help patients with tinnitus of varying severity. However, the differences in outcomes between the two groups were quite small, and this technique can only help manage tinnitus rather than curing it, as some papers implied. Also, the patients in the study were followed for only 12 months, so it is unclear whether this approach can help in the longer term.
If you're not sure of what is causing your tinnitus, a hearing care professional can help pinpoint the issue through a series of tests. It can be helpful to take notes of the sounds you are regularly or irregularly experience to help your hearing healthcare professional put together the clues to what may be causing it. Be sure to alert your practitioner of any pertinent medical history, medications or excessive noise exposure that could be playing a role in your tinnitus.
Homeopathy, hypnosis, meditation and acupuncture are also thought to suppress tinnitus conditions. Studies have shown acupuncture can help relieve symptoms of tinnitus, but relief may not be seen until you have completed 10 to 15 sessions. Homeopathy, which uses plant, mineral and animal material in doses to help relieve ailments, can also be used as a treatment. Some remedies can be used to suppress loud roaring noises, echoing, dull humming and other tinnitus symptoms.
Therefore, the Department of Defense and Congress have taken an interest in furthering tinnitus research, adding it to a list of researchable conditions that impact the military. Both American Tinnitus Association and the Department of Defense fund tinnitus research. New research developments are reported in journals such as Tinnitus Today and the International Tinnitus Journal.
A disorder of the inner ear, Ménière’s disease typically affects hearing and balance and may cause debilitating vertigo, hearing loss, and tinnitus. People who suffer from Ménière’s disease often report a feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear (it typically affects only one ear). The condition most often impacts people in their 40s and 50s, but it can afflict people of all ages, including children. Although treatments can relieve the symptoms of Ménière’s disease and minimize its long-term influence, it is a chronic condition with no true cure.
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.
Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). This technique, which uses a small device placed on the scalp to generate short magnetic pulses, is already being used to normalize electrical activity in the brains of people with epilepsy. Preliminary trials of rTMS in humans, funded by the NIDCD, are helping researchers pinpoint the best places in the brain to stimulate in order to suppress tinnitus. Researchers are also looking for ways to identify which people are most likely to respond well to stimulation devices.
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.
Tinnitus is commonly accompanied by hearing loss, and roughly 90% of persons with chronic tinnitus have some form of hearing loss (Davis and Rafaie, 2000; Lockwood et al, 2002). On the other hand, only about 30-40% of persons with hearing loss develop tinnitus. According to Park and Moon (2004), hearing impairment roughly doubles the odds of having tinnitus, and triples the odds of having annoying tinnitus.
Most cases of tinnitus are unfortunately thought to be difficult to treat, and sometimes severe tinnitus cannot be treated at all when permanent and irreversible damage to the ears or nerves has occurred. That being said, many patients find natural tinnitus treatment methods and coping strategies to be very helpful in allowing them to adjust to the changes that tinnitus brings. Here are six of those tinnitus treatment options:
Subjective tinnitus is the most frequent type of tinnitus. It can have many possible causes, but most commonly it results from hearing loss. When the tinnitus is caused by disorders of the inner ear or auditory nerve it is called otic (from the Greek word for ear). These otological or neurological conditions include those triggered by infections or drugs. A frequent cause is noise exposure that damages hair cells in the inner ear.
There are many different conditions and disorders that affect nerve channels leading to the ears, which can cause someone to hear abnormal ringing or other sounds in their ears. These conditions usually cause other symptoms at the same time (such as dizziness, hearing loss, headaches, facial paralysis, nausea and loss of balance), which doctors use as clues to uncover the underlying cause of tinnitus.
If your mind is occupied with something absorbing, it is easier to forget about the tinnitus. Work, leisure pursuits and other interests can all help to provide a worthwhile focus. If you don't have a hobby, now might be the time to start something, many people say that painting or writing helps. Bear in mind however, that excessive activity may produce stress, so take time for relaxing activities and social interaction where possible.
According to the American Tinnitus Association, this complex audiological and neurological condition is experienced by nearly 50 million Americans. (2) Older adults, men, people who smoke or use drugs, and those with a history of ear infections or cardiovascular disease have the highest risk for developing tinnitus. Most experts believe that it’s not a disorder itself, but rather one symptom of another underlying disorder that affects auditory sensations and nerves near the ears. However, there are tinnitus treatment options out there to treat those symptoms.
Exposure to loud noise. Loud noises, such as those from heavy equipment, chain saws and firearms, are common sources of noise-related hearing loss. Portable music devices, such as MP3 players or iPods, also can cause noise-related hearing loss if played loudly for long periods. Tinnitus caused by short-term exposure, such as attending a loud concert, usually goes away; both short- and long-term exposure to loud sound can cause permanent damage.