Physical exam: Physical examination will focus on the head and neck, and especially the ears, including the auditory canals and tympanic membranes. Since the sense of hearing is conducted through one of the cranial nerves (the short nerves that lead directly from the brain to the face, head and neck), a careful neurologic exam also may be performed. Weakness or numbness in the face, mouth, and neck may be associated with a tumor or other structural abnormality pressing on a nerve. The healthcare professional may listen to the flow in the carotid arteries in the neck for an abnormal sound (bruit), since carotid artery stenosis (narrowing of the artery) can transmit a sound to the ear that may cause tinnitus.
Subjective tinnitus is the most frequent type of tinnitus. It can have many possible causes, but most commonly it results from hearing loss. When the tinnitus is caused by disorders of the inner ear or auditory nerve it is called otic (from the Greek word for ear). These otological or neurological conditions include those triggered by infections or drugs. A frequent cause is noise exposure that damages hair cells in the inner ear.
Removing Excess Earwax. There is a small chance that your tinnitus is being caused by an excess build up of ear wax that is blocking the ear canal. This is especially common in older patients who have a lot of ear hair that ear wax has been building up on over the years. By removing both the excess hair and ear wax, especially if it’s in contact with your ear drum, your tinnitus can improve.
There seems to be a two-way-street relationship between tinnitus and sleep problems. The symptoms of tinnitus can interfere with sleeping well—and poor sleep can make tinnitus more aggravating and difficult to manage effectively. In the same study that found a majority of people with tinnitus had a sleep disorder, the scientists also found that the presence of sleep disorders made tinnitus more disruptive.
The exact biological process by which hearing loss is associated with tinnitus is still being investigated by researchers. However, we do know that the loss of certain sound frequencies leads to specific changes in how the brain processes sound. In short, as the brain receives less external stimuli around a specific frequency, it begins to adapt and change. Tinnitus may be the brain’s way of filling in the missing sound frequencies it no longer receives from the auditory system.
Tinnitus is associated with a high level of emotional stress. Depression, anxiety, and insomnia are not uncommon in people with tinnitus. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that helps people with tinnitus learn to live with their condition. Rather than reducing the sound itself, CBT teaches you how to accept it. The goal is to improve your quality of life and prevent tinnitus from driving you crazy.
Masking. Masking devices, worn like hearing aids, generate low-level white noise (a high-pitched hiss, for example) that can reduce the perception of tinnitus and sometimes also produce residual inhibition — less noticeable tinnitus for a short time after the masker is turned off. A specialized device isn't always necessary for masking; often, playing music or having a radio, fan, or white-noise machine on in the background is enough. Although there's not enough evidence from randomized trials to draw any conclusions about the effectiveness of masking, hearing experts often recommend a trial of simple masking strategies (such as setting a radio at low volume between stations) before they turn to more expensive options.
If you're not sure of what is causing your tinnitus, a hearing care professional can help pinpoint the issue through a series of tests. It can be helpful to take notes of the sounds you are regularly or irregularly experience to help your hearing healthcare professional put together the clues to what may be causing it. Be sure to alert your practitioner of any pertinent medical history, medications or excessive noise exposure that could be playing a role in your tinnitus.
Other causes of tinnitus include middle ear infections, disorders that block the ear canal (such as an external ear infection [external otitis], excessive ear wax, or foreign bodies), problems with the eustachian tube (which connects the middle ear and the back of the nose) due to allergies or other causes of obstruction, otosclerosis (a disorder of excess bone growth in the middle ear), and temporomandibular disorders. An uncommon but serious cause is an acoustic neuroma, a noncancerous (benign) tumor of part of the nerve leading from the inner ear.
Steven Doerr, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Doerr received his undergraduate degree in Spanish from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He graduated with his Medical Degree from the University Of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, Colorado in 1998 and completed his residency training in Emergency Medicine from Denver Health Medical Center in Denver, Colorado in 2002, where he also served as Chief Resident.
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.