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 can be triggered by a variety of different causes, and it varies dramatically from person to person. Some of the causes result in permanent tinnitus that may require treatment, while others result in temporary tinnitus that disappears on its own. Common causes of tinnitus include hearing loss, wax buildup, stress, exposure to loud noises, certain disorders, and certain medications. To learn more about the various causes of tinnitus, check out our page What Causes Tinnitus?
Most people develop tinnitus as a symptom of hearing loss. When you lose hearing, your brain undergoes changes in the way it processes sound frequencies. A hearing aid is a small electronic device that uses a microphone, amplifier, and speaker to increase the volume of external noises. This can mollify neuroplastic changes in the brain’s ability to process sound.
According to the American Tinnitus Association, this complex audiological and neurological condition is experienced by nearly 50 million Americans. (2) Older adults, men, people who smoke or use drugs, and those with a history of ear infections or cardiovascular disease have the highest risk for developing tinnitus. Most experts believe that it’s not a disorder itself, but rather one symptom of another underlying disorder that affects auditory sensations and nerves near the ears. However, there are tinnitus treatment options out there to treat those symptoms.
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.
There are two types of tinnitus: subjective tinnitus and objective tinnitus. Tinnitus is usually subjective, meaning that there is no sound detectable by other means. Subjective tinnitus has also been called "tinnitus aurium", "non-auditory" or "non-vibratory" tinnitus. In very rare cases tinnitus can be heard by someone else using a stethoscope, and in less rare – but still uncommon – cases it can be measured as a spontaneous otoacoustic emission (SOAE) in the ear canal. In such cases it is objective tinnitus, also called "pseudo-tinnitus" or "vibratory" tinnitus.
If your tinnitus is a symptom of an underlying medical condition, the first step is to treat that condition. But if the tinnitus remains after treatment, or if it results from exposure to loud noise, health professionals recommend various non-medical options that may help reduce or mask the unwanted noise (See Masking Devices below). Sometimes, tinnitus goes away spontaneously, without any intervention at all. It should be understood, however, that not all tinnitus can be eliminated or reduced, no matter the cause.
Tinnitus masking or noise suppression devices are common treatment options for tinnitus sufferers. This type of device is worn in the ear like a hearing aid and produces either a constant signal or tonal beats to compete with the sounds you're hearing. The hearing care professional will use the pitch matching and loudness matching tests to set the signal at a level and pitch similar to the tinnitus you are perceiving.
It’s the same mechanism that’s happening in people who feel a phantom limb sensation after losing a limb, explains Susan Shore, PhD, a professor of otolaryngology, molecular physiology, and biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. With tinnitus the loss of hearing causes specific brain neurons to increase their activity as a way of compensating, she explains. “These neurons also synchronize their activity as they would if there were a sound there, but there is no external sound,” she adds.
No matter what the cause, the condition interrupts the transmission of sound from the ear to the brain. Some of the neural circuits no longer receive signals. Strangely, this does not cause hearing loss. Instead, when neural circuits don’t receive stimulation, they react by chattering together, alone at first and then synchronous with each other. Once the nerve cells become hyperactive and occur at the same time, they simulate a tone the brain “hears” as tinnitus. Analogous to a piano, the broken “keys” create a permanent tone without a pianist playing the keys.
White noise machines. These devices, which produce simulated environmental sounds such as falling rain or ocean waves, are often an effective treatment for tinnitus. You may want to try a white noise machine with pillow speakers to help you sleep. Fans, humidifiers, dehumidifiers and air conditioners in the bedroom also may help cover the internal noise at night.
Most tinnitus is subjective, meaning that only you can hear the noise. But sometimes it's objective, meaning that someone else can hear it, too. For example, if you have a heart murmur, you may hear a whooshing sound with every heartbeat; your clinician can also hear that sound through a stethoscope. Some people hear their heartbeat inside the ear — a phenomenon called pulsatile tinnitus. It's more likely to happen in older people, because blood flow tends to be more turbulent in arteries whose walls have stiffened with age. Pulsatile tinnitus may be more noticeable at night, when you're lying in bed and there are fewer external sounds to mask the tinnitus. If you notice any new pulsatile tinnitus, you should consult a clinician, because in rare cases it is a sign of a tumor or blood vessel damage.
Somatic tinnitus is caused, worsened, or otherwise related to your body’s own sensory system. Sensory signals coming from various parts of the body are disrupted, causing a spasm that produces tinnitus. Those who have somatic tinnitus usually have it in only one ear. Depending on the root cause your doctor may come up with treatment options to alleviate the symptoms.
Atherosclerosis. With age and buildup of cholesterol and other deposits, major blood vessels close to your middle and inner ear lose some of their elasticity — the ability to flex or expand slightly with each heartbeat. That causes blood flow to become more forceful, making it easier for your ear to detect the beats. You can generally hear this type of tinnitus in both ears.