Tinnitus is the name for hearing a sound that is not physically present in the environment. Some researchers have also described tinnitus as a “phantom auditory perception.” People with tinnitus most often describe it as ringing, buzzing, cricket sounds, humming, and whooshing, although many other descriptions have been used. To hear some sound samples access the American Tinnitus Association website, where they have put together files of different manifestations of tinnitus to listen to for education purposes.
Tinnitus is a symptom, not a disease. Most cases are due to damage to the microscopic endings of the sensory nerve in the inner ear, commonly from exposure to loud noise (as from amplified music or gunfire). Other causes include allergy, high or low blood pressure, a tumor, diabetes, thyroid dysfunction, and head or neck injury. In addition, some drugs, including aspirin and other anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, sedatives, and antidepressants can also cause tinnitus. If so, changing drugs or lowering the dosage usually helps.
Tinnitus can arise anywhere along the auditory pathway, from the outer ear through the middle and inner ear to the brain's auditory cortex, where it's thought to be encoded (in a sense, imprinted). One of the most common causes of tinnitus is damage to the hair cells in the cochlea (see "Auditory pathways and tinnitus"). These cells help transform sound waves into nerve signals. If the auditory pathways or circuits in the brain don't receive the signals they're expecting from the cochlea, the brain in effect "turns up the gain" on those pathways in an effort to detect the signal — in much the same way that you turn up the volume on a car radio when you're trying to find a station's signal. The resulting electrical noise takes the form of tinnitus — a sound that is high-pitched if hearing loss is in the high-frequency range and low-pitched if it's in the low-frequency range. This kind of tinnitus resembles phantom limb pain in an amputee — the brain is producing abnormal nerve signals to compensate for missing input.
There's no known cure for tinnitus. Current treatments generally involve masking the sound or learning to ignore it. A research team led by Dr. Michael Kilgard at the University of Texas at Dallas and Dr. Navzer Engineer at MicroTransponder, Inc. set out to see if they could develop a way to reverse tinnitus by essentially resetting the brain's auditory system. Their work was funded in part by NIH’s National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD).
The similarities between chronic pain and tinnitus have led researchers to develop a mindfulness-based tinnitus stress reduction (MBTSR) program. The results of a pilot study, which were published in The Hearing Journal, found that participants of an eight-week MBTSR program experienced significantly altered perceptions of their tinnitus. This included a reduction in depression and anxiety.
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.
Many drugs have been studied for treating tinnitus. For some, treatment with low doses of anti-anxiety drugs -- such as Valium or antidepressants such as Elavil -- help reduce tinnitus. The use of a steroid placed into the middle ear along with an anti-anxiety medicine called alprazolam has been shown to be effective for some people. Some small studies have shown that a hormone called misoprostol may be helpful in some cases.
Tinnitus can occur as a sleep disorder - -this is called the "exploding head syndrome". This most often occurs while falling asleep or waking up. It is a tremendously loud noise. Some theorize that this syndrome is due to a brief seizure in auditory cortex. It is not dangerous.(Green 2001; Palikh and Vaughn 2010). Logically, anticonvulsants might be useful for treatment.
Exposure to loud noise. Loud noises, such as those from heavy equipment, chain saws and firearms, are common sources of noise-related hearing loss. Portable music devices, such as MP3 players or iPods, also can cause noise-related hearing loss if played loudly for long periods. Tinnitus caused by short-term exposure, such as attending a loud concert, usually goes away; both short- and long-term exposure to loud sound can cause permanent damage.