Treatment of the underlying primary disorder may help to improve or cure rhythmic tinnitus. For example, the treatment of blood vessel disorders (e.g. dural arteriovenous shunts) can include certain medications or surgery. A surgical procedure known as sinus wall reconstruction can successfully treat pulsatile tinnitus due to sigmoid sinus diverticulum and dehiscence. In fact, most individuals have experienced complete resolution of their tinnitus following this surgery. Surgery may also be necessary for rare cases of pulsatile tinnitus caused by a tumor.
Sound-masking devices provide a pleasant or benign external noise that partially drowns out the internal sound of tinnitus. The traditional sound-masking device is a tabletop sound machine, but there are also small electronic devices that fit in the ear. These devices can play white noise, pink noise, nature noises, music, or other ambient sounds. Most people prefer a level of external sound that is just slightly louder than their tinnitus, but others prefer a masking sound that completely drowns out the ringing.
In many cases, tinnitus is caused by hyperactivity (or too much activity) in the brain’s auditory cortex. “When there’s damage or a loss of input in the ear [such as hearing loss, head trauma, or a blood vessel problem], the brain tries to turn up certain channels in order to compensate,” Dr. Kilgard explains. When the brain doesn’t get that tuning quite right, the result is tinnitus.
Though the exact cause of tinnitus — as in the specific mechanism that creates these phantom sounds in some people — remains unknown, contributing factors and triggers have been identified. Excessive exposure to loud noise is often a factor because of the damage done to your auditory system. Tinnitus may also result from jaw-joint dysfunction (e.g., teeth grinding, temporomandibular joint disorder) or chronic neck muscle strain.
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.
The diagnosis of tinnitus is usually based on the person's description. A number of questionnaires exist that may help to assess how much tinnitus is interfering with a person's life. The diagnosis is commonly supported by an audiogram and a neurological examination. If certain problems are found, medical imaging, such as with MRI, may be performed. Other tests are suitable when tinnitus occurs with the same rhythm as the heartbeat. Rarely, the sound may be heard by someone else using a stethoscope, in which case it is known as objective tinnitus. Spontaneous otoacoustic emissions, which are sounds produced normally by the inner ear, may also occasionally result in tinnitus.
The degree of loudness or annoyance caused by tinnitus varies greatly from one individual to another. Loudness and annoyance do not always covary. An individual with loud tinnitus may not be troubled, while an individual with soft tinnitus may be debilitated. Most individuals with subjective tinnitus have hearing loss that shows up in a standard clinical audiogram. Tinnitus can sometimes worsen or sometimes improve over time.
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.
A common cause of tinnitus is inner ear hair cell damage. Tiny, delicate hairs in your inner ear move in relation to the pressure of sound waves. This triggers 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.