Some instances of tinnitus are caused by infections or blockages in the ear, and the tinnitus can disappear once the underlying cause is treated. Frequently, however, tinnitus continues after the underlying condition is treated. In such a case, other therapies -- both conventional and alternative -- may bring significant relief by either decreasing or covering up the unwanted sound.
Currently there is no cure for most cases of tinnitus. Depending on the type of tinnitus, symptoms will tend to come and go over time. Stress level, diet, and exposure to noise can worsen tinnitus. Many people find their tinnitus annoying but can learn to adapt without difficulty. It is likely that if you have had tinnitus, you will have it again in the future.
Pulsatile tinnitus is generally caused by abnormalities or disorders affecting the blood vessels (vascular disorders), especially the blood vessels near or around the ears. Such abnormalities or disorders can cause a change in the blood flow through the affected blood vessels. The blood vessels could be weakened from damage caused by hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis). For example, abnormalities affecting the carotid artery, the main artery serving the brain, can be associated with pulsatile tinnitus. A rare cause of pulsatile tinnitus is a disorder known as fibromuscular dysplasia (FMD), a condition characterized by abnormal development of the arterial wall. When the carotid artery is affected by FMD, pulsatile tinnitus can develop.
For many, tinnitus symptoms come on gradually and eventually go away as the brain and ears adjust. However, for others tinnitus can last for years and cause various complications. A high percentage of people with tinnitus that’s persistent and untreatable go on to also develop anxiety or depression as a result. What types of things can you do to deal with and lower tinnitus symptoms? Tinnitus treatment includes avoiding excessively loud sources of noise pollution, using certain hearing aids, preventing ear infections and avoiding drug use.
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.
While there may be a wide range of causes, an important underlying factor for the development of tinnitus is brain plasticity.5,7 This property allows the brain to change and adapt, and it is essential to how we learn. Unfortunately, in some cases, such as with hearing loss, the auditory part of the brain may be altered as brain plasticity tries to compensate for the abnormal auditory inputs. This response leads to changes in brain activity in the auditory system (e.g., the auditory cortex) that can create a phantom percept: tinnitus. As such, while tinnitus may begin a problem at the auditory periphery, it persists because of changes throughout the auditory system. Treating tinnitus may require addressing both the initiator (e.g., hearing loss) and the driver (changes in the auditory brain).
Most people who suffer from tinnitus also experience hearing loss to some degree. As they often accompany one another, the two conditions may be correlated. In fact, some researchers believe that subjective tinnitus can only occur if the auditory system has been previously damaged (source). The loss of certain sound frequencies due to hearing loss may change how the brain processes sound, causing it to adapt and fill in the gaps with tinnitus. The underlying hearing loss typically results from exposure to loud noises or advanced age:
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.
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.
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.
Don’t ignore ear pain. Pain or discomfort in your ear can be a sign of conditions associated with tinnitus, including ear infections and earwax buildup. These conditions, and the discomfort they cause, can also interfere with sleep. Whether your ear pain is sharp or dull, constant or intermittent, accompanied by itching or not, take these symptoms to your doctor.
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.
In persons with pulsatile tinnitus, additional tests maybe proposed to study the blood vessels and to check the pressure inside the head. Gentle pressure on the neck can be performed to block the jugular vein but not the carotid artery. The Valsalva maneuver reduces venous return by increasing intrathoracic pressure. If there is a venous hum, this usually abates or improves markedly. If the pulsation is arterial, these tests have no effect.
FACT: Many people with tinnitus will also have a hearing loss. In fact, a recent French study showed that of 123 people with tinnitus surveyed only one did not have hearing loss. The British Tinnitus Association estimates that 90 percent of people with tinnitus also have a hearing loss. Moreover, research says that those who don’t may have a “hidden hearing loss.”
Muscle spasms: Tinnitus that is described as clicking may be due to abnormalities that cause the muscle in the roof of the mouth (palate) to go into spasm. This causes the Eustachian tube, which helps equalize pressure in the ears, to repeatedly open and close. Multiple sclerosis and other neurologic diseases that are associated with muscle spasms may also be a cause of tinnitus, as they may lead to spasms of certain muscles in the middle ear that can cause the repetitive clicking.
But one of the awesome powers of the human brain is its adaptability. “It can learn and reorganize itself every time you practice something new,” Kilgard says. His research, including a study published in February 2014 in the journal Neuromodulation, has shown this adaptability may be key to helping the brain “turn down” the hyperactivity that can lead to tinnitus, he says. (4)
If you have tinnitus, you might be feeling frustrated and helpless, but there is hope! The first step is to consult a hearing care professional at one of our consumer-reviewed clinics. There are also audiologists who specialize in managing tinnitus and many non-medical ways to help you regain your quality of life. Learn more through the links here and, when you’re ready, let us help you connect with a professional in your area.