Tinnitus is not a disease in and of itself, but rather a symptom of some other underlying health condition. In most cases, tinnitus is a sensorineural reaction in the brain to damage in the ear and auditory system. While tinnitus is often associated with hearing loss, there are roughly 200 different health disorders that can generate tinnitus as a symptom. Below is a list of some of the most commonly reported catalysts for tinnitus.
Changes in the bones of the middle ear. A person’s ear is made up of several different bones: the malleus, Incus and Stapes. In some individuals, these bones may actually change shape or harden over the years. This process is known as otosclerosis and often runs in the family. This can cause ringing in the ears to begin or, if it has already started, to get worse over time.
About 25-30 million Americans have tinnitus as a condition, and they experience these noises on a regular, most often daily, basis. About 40 percent of people with tinnitus hear tinnitus noise through 80 percent of their day. And for a smaller group of people—about 1 in 5, tinnitus is disruptive enough to significantly interfere with daily functioning, becoming disabling or nearly disabling.
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.
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 – a sound in the head with no external source – is not a disease; it is a symptom that can be triggered by a variety of different health conditions. So what causes tinnitus? Common sources include hearing loss, ear wax buildup, ototoxic medications, and ear bone changes. No matter what the cause, the condition interrupts the transmission of sound from the ear to the brain. Some part of the hearing system is involved as well, whether the outer, middle, or inner ear.
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.
Ear canal obstructions, infections, injuries or surgeries. This can include ossicle dislocation within the ear that affects hearing or recurring ear infections (like swimmer’s ear) either in the outside or inside of the ear canal (otitis media or otitis externa). Other ear disorders tied to tinnitus include otosclerosis (causes changes to the bones inside the ears), tympanic membrane perforation or labrynthitis (chronic infections or viruses that attack tissue in the ears).
Vascular issues. Some people have blood vessels near their ears that are capable of causing tinnitus. I have found that if the blood pressure is elevated, this increased pressure can cause that dreaded ringing in your ears or even a whooshing sound. Because pregnant women often have elevated blood pressure, they are easily susceptible to tinnitus. Tinnitus caused by pregnancy should go away with an over the counter tinnitus treatment and once the baby is born. An overactive thyroid has also been shown to causes vascular issues that bring on tinnitus.
Most experts refer to tinnitus as the condition that causes ringing in the ears, however other abnormal sounds and sensations can also be attributed to tinnitus. The definition of tinnitus is “the perception of noise or ringing in the ears.” Some also describe this condition as “hearing sounds in the ears when no external sound is present.” Although tinnitus is only a significant problem for about 1 percent to 5 percent of the population, up to 10 percent to 15 percent of all children and adults are believed to experience ringing in the ears at least from time to time.
Exposure to Loud Noise: Exposure to loud or excessive noise can damage or destroy hair cells (cilia) in the inner ear. Because the hair cells cannot be renewed or replaced, this can lead to permanent hearing loss and/or tinnitus. Continued exposure can worsen these conditions, so people who work in loud environments should always wear ear protection. This includes musicians, air traffic controllers, construction workers, military personnel, and first responders. In addition, consider lowering the volume on your iPod and wearing earplugs at loud concerts.
Almost every ENT, audiology practice, and hearing aid dispenser who claims to offer tinnitus treatment only offers one solution: hearing aids. While amplification may help some, only 50% of people living with tinnitus experience hearing loss that affects their understanding of speech, which means hearing aids are ineffective. At Sound Relief, we offer only evidence-based options like sound therapy and have seen countless patients experience life-changing results.
There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that some tinnitus is a consequence of neuroplastic alterations in the central auditory pathway. These alterations are assumed to result from a disturbed sensory input, caused by hearing loss. Hearing loss could indeed cause a homeostatic response of neurons in the central auditory system, and therefore cause tinnitus.
The best supported treatment for tinnitus is a type of counseling called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which can be delivered via the internet or in person. It decreases the amount of stress those with tinnitus feel. These benefits appear to be independent of any effect on depression or anxiety in an individual. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) also shows promise in the treatment of tinnitus. Relaxation techniques may also be useful. A clinical protocol called Progressive Tinnitus Management for treatment of tinnitus has been developed by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.
Tinnitus is the hearing of sound when no external sound is present. While often described as a ringing, it may also sound like a clicking, hiss or roaring. Rarely, unclear voices or music are heard. The sound may be soft or loud, low pitched or high pitched and appear to be coming from one ear or both. Most of the time, it comes on gradually. In some people, the sound causes depression or anxiety and can interfere with concentration.
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.”
It can often be very helpful to talk to someone who understands how you are feeling, who can reassure you about any anxieties you may have, and answer your questions. We can provide details of self-help groups and contacts in the UK, and we also run a helpline on 0800 018 0527. Most of the people who run groups or are contacts have tinnitus themselves and have been helping people with the condition for a long time. Even if you don't want to take part in group activities, it can be a comfort to know there is someone you can contact.
Steven Doerr, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Doerr received his undergraduate degree in Spanish from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He graduated with his Medical Degree from the University Of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, Colorado in 1998 and completed his residency training in Emergency Medicine from Denver Health Medical Center in Denver, Colorado in 2002, where he also served as Chief Resident.
Use other relaxation techniques. Tinnitus is understandably anxiety provoking, often a source of frustration and stress throughout the day and night. Reducing anxiety, and finding ways to relax, have benefits for both tinnitus and sleep. Relaxation exercises can reduce the aggravation of tinnitus, and make you more able to fall asleep. A few of the relaxation techniques my patients find most effective and easy to use are:
Patulous Eustachian tubes can be associated with tinnitus. The Eustachian tube is a small canal that connects the middle ear to the back of the nose and upper throat. The Eustachian tube normally remains closed. In individuals with a patulous Eustachian tube, the tube is abnormally open. Consequently, talking, chewing, swallowing and other similar actions can cause vibrations directly onto the ear drum. For example, affected individuals may hear blowing sounds that are synchronized with breathing.
Tinnitus (pronounced "tin-it-tus") is an abnormal noise in the ear (note that it is not an "itis" -- which means inflammation). Tinnitus is common -- nearly 36 million Americans have constant tinnitus and more than half of the normal population has intermittent tinnitus. Another way to summarize this is that about 10-15% of the entire population has some type of constant tinnitus, and about 20% of these people (i.e. about 1% of the population) seek medical attention (Adjamian et al, 2009). Similar statistics are found in England (Dawes et al, 2014) and Korea (Park and Moon, 2014).
Physical exam: Physical examination will focus on the head and neck, and especially the ears, including the auditory canals and tympanic membranes. Since the sense of hearing is conducted through one of the cranial nerves (the short nerves that lead directly from the brain to the face, head and neck), a careful neurologic exam also may be performed. Weakness or numbness in the face, mouth, and neck may be associated with a tumor or other structural abnormality pressing on a nerve. The healthcare professional may listen to the flow in the carotid arteries in the neck for an abnormal sound (bruit), since carotid artery stenosis (narrowing of the artery) can transmit a sound to the ear that may cause tinnitus.
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.
Prolonged exposure to loud sounds is the most common cause of tinnitus. Up to 90% of people with tinnitus have some level of noise-induced hearing loss. The noise causes permanent damage to the sound-sensitive cells of the cochlea, a spiral-shaped organ in the inner ear. Carpenters, pilots, rock musicians, street-repair workers, and landscapers are among those whose jobs put them at risk, as are people who work with chain saws, guns, or other loud devices or who repeatedly listen to loud music. A single exposure to a sudden extremely loud noise can also cause tinnitus.