Resetting the tonotopic map. Researchers are exploring how to take advantage of the tonotopic map, which organizes neurons in the auditory cortex according to the frequency of the sound to which they respond. Previous research has shown a change in the organization of the tonotopic map after exposing the ear to intense noise. By understanding how these changes happen, researchers could develop techniques to bring the map back to normal and relieve tinnitus.
If you develop tinnitus, it's important to see your clinician. She or he will take a medical history, give you a physical examination, and do a series of tests to try to find the source of the problem. She or he will also ask you to describe the noise you're hearing (including its pitch and sound quality, and whether it's constant or periodic, steady or pulsatile) and the times and places in which you hear it. Your clinician will review your medical history, your current and past exposure to noise, and any medications or supplements you're taking. Tinnitus can be a side effect of many medications, especially when taken at higher doses (see "Some drugs that can cause or worsen tinnitus").
Tinnitus is not a disease in and of itself, but rather a symptom of some other underlying health condition. In most cases, tinnitus is a sensorineural reaction in the brain to damage in the ear and auditory system. While tinnitus is often associated with hearing loss, there are roughly 200 different health disorders that can generate tinnitus as a symptom. Below is a list of some of the most commonly reported catalysts for tinnitus.
Many of us experience tinnitus every once in a while. If you’re exposed to extremely loud noise, or leave a noisy environment for a quiet one, you may notice a temporary buzzing or ringing in your ear. Maybe you’ve been near loud construction—like a jackhammer, or stepped out of a loud action movie or music concert to a quiet lobby or street. (Be aware: even a single exposure to very loud noise can do damage to your hearing, and increase your risk for tinnitus.)
The researchers next tested whether tinnitus could be reversed in noise-exposed rats. The animals received VNS paired with various tones other than the tinnitus frequency 300 times a day for about 3 weeks. Rats that received the treatment showed behavioral changes indicating that the ringing had stopped. Neural responses in the brain's auditory cortex returned to their normal levels as well, indicating that the tinnitus had disappeared.
Loud noise is the leading cause of damage to the inner ear. Most patients with noise trauma describe a whistling tinnitus (Nicholas-Puel et al,. 2002). In a large study of tinnitus, avoidance of occupational noise was one of two factors most important in preventing tinnitus (Sindhusake et al. 2003). The other important factor was the rapidity of treating ear infections.
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.
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.
Cochlear Implants. These implants are a treatment option for patients that have a severe hearing loss along with tinnitus. Cochlear implants are designed to bypass any damaged parts of the inner ear and send the electrical signals sound makes directly to the auditory nerve. By bringing in outside noise, these implants can effectively mask your tinnitus, as well as stimulate your neural circuits to change.
Being exposed to loud noise on a regular basis from heavy equipment, chain saws or firearms are common causes of hearing loss and tinnitus. Noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus can also be caused by listening to loud music through headphones or attending loud concerts frequently. It is possible to experience short-term tinnitus after seeing a concert, but long-term exposure will cause permanent damage.
White Noise Machines. These devices do a great job of simulating the sound of everything from ocean waves, to rain, to a thunder storm, to a crackling fire to an oscillating fan to just plain old static. The result is that your brain focuses on the sounds around you instead of the ringing in your head. You can even download apps on your iPhone that do the same thing so that you can always have a noise machine with you wherever you go. The constant background noise can not only bring back nostalgic feelings of joy, if you used to site around a crackling fire on holidays with your family, but also allow you to forget about your tinnitus.
Technology and portable music devices also contribute to noise pollution, especially in younger people. Keep the volume of your phone, MP3 players or iPod on the lower end when listening to headphones, and don’t play very loud noises for long durations of time. To aid in tinnitus treatment, look out for changes in your ability to hear if you’re frequently exposed to loud noises, limit use of headphones or consider wearing earplugs.
People with warning signs should see a doctor right away. People without warning signs in whom tinnitus recently developed should call their doctor, as should people with pulsatile tinnitus. Most people with tinnitus and no warning signs have had tinnitus for a long time. They can discuss the matter with their doctor and be seen at a mutually convenient time.
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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.
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Overdosing on certain prescription drugs, recreational drugs or alcohol. This can sometimes cause permanent damage to nerves that affect hearing. In some cases when a pregnant women uses drugs during pregnancy, this can cause tinnitus to develop in her child. Common drugs that might contribute to tinnitus include ototoxics, psychotropic drugs, aminoglycosides, certain antibiotics and vancomycin.
The physician may also request an OAE test (which is very sensitive to noise induced hearing damage), an ECochG (looking for Meniere's disease and hydrops, an MRI/MRA test (scan of the brain), a VEMP (looking for damage to other parts of the ear) and several blood tests (ANA, B12, FTA, ESR, SMA-24, HBA-IC, fasting glucose, TSH, anti-microsomal antibodies).
This well-designed study found that using CBT alongside elements of standard therapy can help patients with tinnitus of varying severity. However, the differences in outcomes between the two groups were quite small, and this technique can only help manage tinnitus rather than curing it, as some papers implied. Also, the patients in the study were followed for only 12 months, so it is unclear whether this approach can help in the longer term.
None of these treatment options are supported by science. Many people are convinced that the herb gingko biloba is helpful, however large-scale studies have been unable to prove this. There are many nutritional supplements claiming to be tinnitus remedies. These are usually a combination of herbs and vitamins, often including zinc, ginkgo, and vitamin B-12.
Acoustic Neural Stimulation. This relatively new treatment has shown to be effective in reducing, and in some cases eliminating, symptoms in patients whose tinnitus just won’t go away or is very loud. The treatment utilizes a device small enough to fit into the palm of your hand that delivers a broadband acoustical signal embedded in special music you can listen to via headphones. The treatment eventually desensitizes you to the ringing in your ears by stimulating changes in the neural circuits in your brain.
Until recently, most tinnitus patients had little reason to believe doctors would ever be able to completely cure or reverse the affliction. Drug therapies had consistently failed, and so had more invasive procedures — including some surgeries to remove the auditory nerve that transmits sound from the ear to the brain, according to past research. (1,2)
Ear canal obstructions, infections, injuries or surgeries. This can include ossicle dislocation within the ear that affects hearing or recurring ear infections (like swimmer’s ear) either in the outside or inside of the ear canal (otitis media or otitis externa). Other ear disorders tied to tinnitus include otosclerosis (causes changes to the bones inside the ears), tympanic membrane perforation or labrynthitis (chronic infections or viruses that attack tissue in the ears).
Many of the press headlines mentioned that listening to the sound of the sea could help tinnitus, with the Metro claiming this could cure the condition. However, sound therapies that try to neutralise tinnitus using soothing sounds, such as waves or birdsong, are not new, but are part of standard treatments for this condition. Also, the report in the Lancet did not state what kind of sounds were used as therapy. Sound therapy was not the only treatment approach used, but was given as part of a specialised treatment programme delivered by expert health professionals.
Antidepressants. Antidepressants, such as nortriptyline and amitriptyline, have been used as mood enhancers to help someone with tinnitus cope with the life changing implications and complications it brings. However, they are often only prescribed in the most severe of tinnitus cases as they carry some serious side effects that might not make them worth taking for everyone. These include blurred vision, heart problems, dry mouth and constipation.
Tinnitus is believed to be caused by inner ear cell damage. Cilia in your inner ear move in relation to the pressure of sound waves. This triggers these cells to release an electrical signal through a nerve from your ear (auditory nerve) to your brain. Your brain interprets these signals as sound. If the hairs inside your inner ear are bent or broken, they can "leak" random electrical impulses to your brain, causing tinnitus.
Tinnitus is a common condition characterized by the perception or sensation of sound even though there is no identifiable external source for the sound. Tinnitus is often referred to as a “ringing in the ears.” However, the sounds associated with tinnitus have also been described as hissing, chirping, crickets, whooshing, or roaring sounds, amongst others, that can affect one or both ears. Tinnitus is generally broken down into two types: subjective and objective. Subjective tinnitus is very common and is defined as a sound that is audible only to the person with tinnitus. Subjective tinnitus is a purely electrochemical phenomenon and cannot be heard by an outside observer no matter how hard they try. Objective tinnitus, which is far less common, is defined as a sound that arises from an “objective” source, such as mechanical defect or a specific sound source, and can be heard by an outside observer under favorable conditions. The sounds from objective tinnitus occur somewhere within the body and reach the ears by conduction through various body tissues. Objective tinnitus is usually caused by disorders affecting the blood vessels (vascular system) or muscles (muscular system).
Herbal home remedies (ginkgo biloba, melatonin), and the vitamin zinc are not recommended by the American Academy of Otolaryngology. Lipo-flavonoid is a supplement being marketed as a way to relieve tinnitus, but there is no current evidence it is effective for most cases of the condition; however, it may be helpful for symptoms of Meniere's disease. Check with your doctor or other health care professional before taking any herbal or over-the-counter (OTC) natural remedies.
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Repeated loud noise exposure can be a cause of tinnitus as well as hearing loss. Loud music may cause short term symptoms, but repeated occupational exposure (for example, musicians, factory and construction workers) requires less intense sound levels to cause potential hearing damage leading to tinnitus. Minimizing sound exposure, therefore, decreases the risk of developing tinnitus. Sound protection equipment, like acoustic ear-muffs, may be appropriate at work and at home when exposed to loud noises.
Now make your toes as tight as you can, really scrunch them up. Hold them like this for a moment – and relax. Now do the same with your ankles, then your calf muscles, your thighs… work all the way up your body to your head, making sure you tense, hold for a moment, and then release the tension. Once you’ve done this with your whole body, focus again on your breathing – notice the rhythm, it should be even and calm.
Cartoon of the middle ear showing muscles that attach to ossicles (ear bones), and ear drum. The stapedius is attached to the stapes (of course -- horseshoe object above), while the tensor tympani is attached to the ear drum. While useful, be aware that there are multiple errors in this illustration from Loyola Medical School. With permission, from: http://www.meddean.luc.edu/lumen/meded/grossanatomy/dissector/mml/images/stap.jpg
Along the path a hearing signal travels to get from the inner ear to the brain, there are many places where things can go wrong to cause tinnitus. If scientists can understand what goes on in the brain to start tinnitus and cause it to persist, they can look for those places in the system where a therapeutic intervention could stop tinnitus in its tracks.
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.
Hearing loss often accompanies tinnitus, so a hearing aid can hit two birds with one stone. In addition to amplifying sound, the device can camouflage the ringing in your ears by boosting other soft sounds in your environment. If you experience hearing loss in addition to your tinnitus, discuss the potential benefits of a hearing aid that may assist with both conditions at the same time.
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.