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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.
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.
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.
Try meditation and relaxation techniques. Stress can aggravate tinnitus, so take deep breaths and relax if you start to feel anxious, worried, or overwhelmed. Count to 4 as you breathe in slowly, hold your breath for a 4 count, then count to 4 as you slowly exhale. Continue to control your breathing for 1 to 2 minutes, or until you feel at ease.
Masking. Masking devices, worn like hearing aids, generate low-level white noise (a high-pitched hiss, for example) that can reduce the perception of tinnitus and sometimes also produce residual inhibition — less noticeable tinnitus for a short time after the masker is turned off. A specialized device isn't always necessary for masking; often, playing music or having a radio, fan, or white-noise machine on in the background is enough. Although there's not enough evidence from randomized trials to draw any conclusions about the effectiveness of masking, hearing experts often recommend a trial of simple masking strategies (such as setting a radio at low volume between stations) before they turn to more expensive options.
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.
There seems to be a two-way-street relationship between tinnitus and sleep problems. The symptoms of tinnitus can interfere with sleeping well—and poor sleep can make tinnitus more aggravating and difficult to manage effectively. In the same study that found a majority of people with tinnitus had a sleep disorder, the scientists also found that the presence of sleep disorders made tinnitus more disruptive.
Tinnitus usually comes in the form of a high-pitched tone in one or both ears, but can also sound like a clicking, roaring or whooshing sound. While tinnitus isn't fully understood, it is known to be a sign that something is wrong in the auditory system: the ear, the auditory nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain, or the parts of the brain that process sound. Something as simple as a piece of earwax blocking the ear canal can cause tinnitus, but it can also arise from a number of health conditions. For example, when sensory cells in the inner ear are damaged from loud noise, the resulting hearing loss changes some of the signals in the brain to cause tinnitus.
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.
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.
Acoustic neural stimulation is a relatively new technique for people whose tinnitus is very loud or won’t go away. It uses a palm-sized device and headphones to deliver a broadband acoustic signal embedded in music. The treatment helps stimulate change in the neural circuits in the brain, which eventually desensitizes you to the tinnitus. The device has been shown to be effective in reducing or eliminating tinnitus in a significant number of study volunteers.
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.
Meniere’s disease isn’t directly connected to tinnitus, but people with Meniere’s often experience it, at least temporarily. Meniere's disease is an inner ear disease that typically only affects one ear. This disease can cause pressure or pain in the ear, severe cases of dizziness or vertigo and a ringing or roaring tinnitus. While Meniere’s isn’t fully understood, it appears that several relief options for tinnitus can also help with this disease. Patients are often advised to reduce stress and lower their consumption of caffeine and sodium.