Tinnitus remains a symptom that affects the lives of millions of people. Research is directed not only at its treatment, but also at understanding why it occurs. Research by doctors at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, Dalhousie University (Canada), and Southeast China University have published research using electrophysiology and functional MRI to better understand what parts of the brain are involved in hearing and the production of tinnitus. Their research has found that much larger areas of the brain are involved with the process of hearing than previously believed, which may help direct future diagnostic and therapeutic options.
Most of the causes of tinnitus alter neurological activity within the auditory cortex, the portion of the brain responsible for hearing. The transmission of sound is interrupted, so some of the neural circuits fail to receive signals. Instead of causing hearing loss, as you might expect due to the lack of stimulation, the neural circuits begin chattering. First, they chatter alone. Then, they become hyperactive and synchronous. When we experience this deviation, our brains attempt to compensate for the change by interpreting the neurological activity as sound. This can resemble ringing, buzzing, hissing, whistling, or roaring, amongst a variety of other noises.
Cochlear implants are sometimes used in people who have tinnitus along with severe hearing loss. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged portion of the inner ear and sends electrical signals that directly stimulate the auditory nerve. The device brings in outside sounds that help mask tinnitus and stimulate change in the neural circuits. Read the NIDCD fact sheet Cochlear Implants for more information.
Although there’s no proven cure for tinnitus, there are treatments that help make it easier to ignore. For example, you can wear devices in your ear(s) that produce soothing therapeutic noises to shift your focus away from the tinnitus. Other devices produce constant, soft noise to mask the tinnitus. Tinnitus sufferers who also have hearing loss sometimes find relief simply by wearing properly fitted hearing aids.
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).
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.
Age-Related Hearing Loss: Also known as presbycusis, age-related hearing loss results from the cumulative effect of aging on hearing. This permanent, progressive, and sensorineural condition is most pronounced at higher frequencies. It commonly impacts people over the age of 50, as all people begin to lose approximately 0.5% of the inner ear’s hair cells annually starting at age 40.
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.
Some people experience a sound that beats in time with their pulse, known as pulsatile tinnitus or vascular tinnitus. Pulsatile tinnitus is usually objective in nature, resulting from altered blood flow, increased blood turbulence near the ear, such as from atherosclerosis or venous hum, but it can also arise as a subjective phenomenon from an increased awareness of blood flow in the ear. Rarely, pulsatile tinnitus may be a symptom of potentially life-threatening conditions such as carotid artery aneurysm or carotid artery dissection. Pulsatile tinnitus may also indicate vasculitis, or more specifically, giant cell arteritis. Pulsatile tinnitus may also be an indication of idiopathic intracranial hypertension. Pulsatile tinnitus can be a symptom of intracranial vascular abnormalities and should be evaluated for irregular noises of blood flow (bruits).
Another way of splitting up tinnitus is into objective and subjective. Objective tinnitus can be heard by the examiner. Subjective cannot. Practically, as there is only a tiny proportion of the population with objective tinnitus, this method of categorizing tinnitus is rarely of any help. It seems to us that it should be possible to separate out tinnitus into inner ear vs everything else using some of the large array of audiologic testing available today. For example, it would seem to us that tinnitus should intrinsically "mask" sounds of the same pitch, and that this could be quantified using procedures that are "tuned" to the tinnitus.
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.
Superior semicircular canal dehiscence syndrome is another not uncommon cause of pulsatile tinnitus. The superior semicircular canal is one of three canals found in the vestibular apparatus of the inner ear. The vestibular apparatus helps to maintain equilibrium and balance. In this syndrome, a part of the temporal bone that overlies the superior semicircular canal is abnormally thin or absent. Superior semicircular canal dehiscence syndrome can affect both hearing and balance to different degrees.
As an initial test of our treatment, we first conducted a small pilot study to see if there were measurable benefits within 3 to 6 months of using this therapy. While we did not inform participants of whether they would receive a treatment or unaltered music, every participant in fact received a treatment. Participants reported a drop in scores on the Tinnitus Handicap Inventory (THI) within 3 months of using their personalized sound therapy for about 2 hours a day. THI is a psychometrically robust and validated questionnaire that assesses the impact of tinnitus on daily living and the degree of distress suffered by the tinnitus patient. Furthermore, we saw increased benefits after 6 months of treatment use (Figure 1). This data suggested that our treatment may be engaging brain plasticity in a positive manner, thereby gradually reducing tinnitus over time. Armed with this information, we designed a more rigorous trial that is very uncommon among research in tinnitus therapies.
In the advance online edition of Nature on January 12, 2011, the researchers reported that the number of neurons tuned to the high frequency had jumped by 79% compared to control rats. The scientist then tested 2 different tones in a second group of rats but stimulated the vagus nerve only for the higher one. The neurons tuned to the higher tone increased by 70%, while those tuned to the lower one decreased in number. This showed that the tone alone wasn’t enough to initiate the change; it had to be accompanied by VNS.
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.
John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.
As of 2014 there were no medications effective for idiopathic tinnitus. There is not enough evidence to determine if antidepressants or acamprosate are useful. While there is tentative evidence for benzodiazepines, it is insufficient to support usage. Usefulness of melatonin, as of 2015, is unclear. It is unclear if anticonvulsants are useful for treating tinnitus. Steroid injections into the middle ear also do not seem to be effective.
Before long, you’re both mentally and physically stimulated in ways that make it even harder to relax and fall asleep. Like any other form of anxiety, stress about falling asleep creates mental arousal, bringing your brain to alertness. And it also creates physical arousal, raising heart rate and body temperature. This kind of anxiety can lead to behaviors that further undermine sleep, including:
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.
Objective tinnitus is very rare. It can be heard by a doctor either using a stethoscope or by listening very closely to your ear. It occurs rarely and may due to involuntary muscle contractions or vascular deformities. The sound is often described as pulsating and may be heard in time with your heartbeat. Objective tinnitus usually has a determinable cause and disappears when treated by surgery or other medical intervention.