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.
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
Additional conditions that can cause pulsatile tinnitus include arterial bruit, abnormal passages or connections between the blood vessels of the outermost layer of the membrane (dura) that covers the brain and spinal cord (dural arteriovenous shunts), or conditions that cause increased pressure within the skull such as idiopathic intracranial hypertension (pseudotumor cerebri). Sigmoid sinus dehiscence may be associated with pseudotumor, but this connection has not been firmly established. It possible that cases of pulsatile tinnitus associated with pseudotumor may be caused by an undiagnosed SSWA. Head trauma, surgery, middle ear conductive hearing loss, and certain tumors can also cause pulsatile tinnitus. Obstructions within in the vessels that connect the heart and brain can also cause pulsatile tinnitus.
Inspection of the eardrum may sometimes demonstrate subtle movements due to contraction of the tensor tympani (Cohen and Perez, 2003). Tensor tympani myoclonus causes a thumping. Another muscle, the stapedius, can also make higher pitched sounds. See this page for more. Opening or closing of the eustachian tube causes a clicking. The best way to hear "objective tinnitus" from the middle ear is simply to have an examiner with normal hearing put their ear up next to the patient. Stethoscopes favor low frequency sounds and may not be very helpful.
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.
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.
Everything you need to know about acoustic neuroma Acoustic neuroma is a benign tumor affecting nerves between the inner ear and the brain. It can lead to hearing loss, tinnitus, and loss of balance. This MNT Knowledge Center article explores the treatments, symptoms, and causes of acoustic neuroma, as well as how the condition may become more severe and complicate. Read now
Other therapies. Other treatments that have been studied for tinnitus include transcutaneous electrical stimulation of parts of the inner ear by way of electrodes placed on the skin or acupuncture needles, and stimulation of the brain using a powerful magnetic field (a technique called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, or rTMS). Transcutaneous electrical stimulation has been shown to be no more effective than a placebo. In two small trials, rTMS compared with a sham procedure helped improve the perception of tinnitus in a few patients.
We occasionally recommend neuropsychological testing using a simple screening questionnaire -- depression, anxiety, and OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) are common in persons with tinnitus. This is not surprising considering how disturbing tinnitus may be to ones life (Holmes and Padgham, 2009). Persons with OCD tend to "obsess" about tinnitus. Treatment of these psychological conditions may be extremely helpful.
If the source of the problem remains unclear, you may be sent to an otologist or an otolaryngologist (both ear specialists) or an audiologist (a hearing specialist) for hearing and nerve tests. As part of your examination, you may be given a hearing test called an audiogram. An imaging technique, such as an MRI or a CT scan, may also be recommended to reveal any structural problem.
Dr. Ben Wedro practices emergency medicine at Gundersen Clinic, a regional trauma center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His background includes undergraduate and medical studies at the University of Alberta, a Family Practice internship at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and residency training in Emergency Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
While tinnitus is as varied as its causes, it can be grouped into two categories: tonal and non-tonal. Tonal tinnitus is more common and describes the perception of a near-continuous sound or overlapping sounds with a well-defined frequency (e.g., whistling, ringing, buzzing). Non-tonal forms of tinnitus include humming, clicking, crackling, and rumbling.
While there are many different FDA-approved treatments for tinnitus available, the most important component is finding the right partner (i.e. a Doctor of Audiology), who will work closely with you to help explain your tinnitus and treatment progress over time. In order for the options below to be as successful as possible, the proper support and guidance from an experienced tinnitus specialist is mandatory.
Pulsatile tinnitus: This problem usually is related to blood flow, either through normal or abnormal blood vessels near the ear. Causes of pulsatile tinnitus include pregnancy, anemia (lack of blood cells), overactive thyroid, or tumors involving blood vessels near the ear. Pulsatile tinnitus also can be caused by a condition known as benign intracranial hypertension (an increase in the pressure of the fluid surrounding the brain).
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.
A common cause of tinnitus is inner ear hair cell damage. Tiny, delicate hairs in your inner ear move in relation to the pressure of sound waves. This triggers cells to release an electrical signal through a nerve from your ear (auditory nerve) to your brain. Your brain interprets these signals as sound. If the hairs inside your inner ear are bent or broken, they can "leak" random electrical impulses to your brain, causing tinnitus.