A wealth of research has gone into understanding the mechanisms of tinnitus due to the increased concern in our ageing and noise exposed society through the support of organizations such as the Tinnitus Research Institute, the American Tinnitus Association and even the US Department of Defense. This research has helped us to understand not only why and how this phantom percept can develop, but also sheds light on why it may sound like a hiss for one person and a high pitched tone for another.7 In addition, neuroscientists have shown connections between the limbic system (where emotions are processed) and the auditory system; it is not uncommon for tinnitus to increase during times of stress or negative emotions.5 As such, the effective tinnitus treatment strategies should be enjoyable and positive, and should account for the variability in what tinnitus sounds like for each patient.
Almost everyone has had tinnitus for a short time after being exposed to extremely loud noise. For example, attending a loud concert can trigger short-lived tinnitus. Some medications (especially aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs taken in high doses) can cause tinnitus that goes away when the drug is discontinued. When it lasts more than six months, it's known as chronic tinnitus. As many as 50 to 60 million people in the United States suffer from this condition; it's especially common in people over age 55 and strongly associated with hearing loss. Many people worry that tinnitus is a sign that they are going deaf or have another serious medical problem, but it rarely is.
Loud noise exposure: Being exposed to occupational loud noise on a regular basis from heavy equipment, chain saws or firearms is a common cause of tinnitus. However, even if you don’t work in a noisy environment, you can still suffer the effects of noise exposure by listening to loud music through headphones, attending live music performances frequently and engaging in noisy hobbies.
Patients with head or neck injury may have particularly loud and disturbing tinnitus (Folmer and Griest, 2003). Tinnitus due to neck injury is the most common type of "somatic tinnitus". Somatic tinnitus means that the tinnitus is coming from something other than the inner ear. Tinnitus from a clear cut inner ear disorder frequently changes loudness or pitch when one simply touches the area around the ear. This is thought to be due to somatic modulation of tinnitus. We have encountered patients who have excellent responses to cervical epidural steroids, and in persons who have both severe tinnitus and significant cervical nerve root compression, we think this is worth trying as treatment.
Hearing (audiological) exam. As part of the test, you'll sit in a soundproof room wearing earphones through which will be played specific sounds into one ear at a time. You'll indicate when you can hear the sound, and your results are compared with results considered normal for your age. This can help rule out or identify possible causes of tinnitus.
Standard masking devices help to mask the sound of tinnitus while you are using them, but they have no long-lasting effects. Modern medical-grade devices use customized sounds tailored specifically to your tinnitus. Unlike regular sound machines, these devices are only worn intermittently. You may experience benefits long after the device is turned off, and over time, you may experience long-term improvement in the perceived loudness of your tinnitus.
To keep the brain activated and aware, Kilgard’s therapy involves stimulating the vagus nerve, which is actually a pair of nerves that runs inside the neck and into the brain. “All the stuff you brains learns about your body — it all comes in through the vagus nerve,” he says. “We trick the brain into thinking it’s learning something important by stimulating this nerve in the neck.”
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.
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.
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).
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.”
When a medication is ototoxic, it has a toxic effect on the ear or its nerve supply. In damaging the ear, these drugs can cause side effects like tinnitus, hearing loss, or a balance disorder. Depending on the medication and dosage, the effects of ototoxic medications can be temporary or permanent. More than 200 prescription and over-the-counter medicines are known to be ototoxic, including the following:
Seek out cognitive-behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, involves working with a clinician (or independently, with a clinically-developed self-treatment program) to re-frame negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. CBT is effective with a wide range of physical and mental health conditions, including stress, anxiety, and depression. CBT is also highly effective in treating insomnia and other sleep problems. And research shows CBT can help improve the management of tinnitus.
It is important to note that existing hearing loss is sometimes not directly observable by the patient, who may not perceive any lost frequencies. But this this does not mean that hearing damage has not been done. A trained audiologist or other hearing health professional can perform sensitive audiometric tests to precisely measure the true extent of hearing loss.
Your doctor will try to determine what is causing the condition. If it is not due to a medication side effect or a general medical condition (such as high blood pressure), he or she may refer you to an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat doctor) or an audiologist (hearing specialist). It is especially important to see an otolaryngologist if you experience tinnitus in only one ear, tinnitus that sounds like your heartbeat or pulse (pulsatile tinnitus), tinnitus with sudden or fluctuating hearing loss, pressure or fullness in one or both ears, and/or dizziness or balance problems. Unless the cause of the tinnitus is obvious on physical examination, a hearing test is usually required.
Often people bring in very long lists of medications that have been reported, once or twice, to be associated with tinnitus. This unfortunate behavior makes it very hard to care for these patients -- as it puts one into an impossible situation where the patient is in great distress but is also unwilling to attempt any treatment. Specialists who care for patients with ear disease, usually know very well which drugs are problems (such as those noted above), and which ones are nearly always safe.
Why is tinnitus so disruptive to sleep? Often, it’s because tinnitus sounds become more apparent at night, in a quiet bedroom. The noises of daily life can help minimize the aggravation and disruptiveness of tinnitus sounds. But if your bedroom is too quiet, you may perceive those sounds more strongly when you try to fall asleep—and not be able to drift off easily.
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.
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.