Tinnitus (pronounced tin-NY-tus or TIN-u-tus) is not a disease. It is a symptom that something is wrong in the auditory system, which includes the ear, the auditory nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain, and 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 be the result of a number of health conditions, such as:
Hyperacusis is a different, but related condition to tinnitus. People with hyperacusis have a high sensitivity to common, everyday environmental noise. In particular, sharp and high-pitched sounds are very difficult for people with hyperacusis to tolerate—sounds like the screeching of brakes, a baby crying or a dog barking, a sink full of dishes and silverware clanging. Many people with tinnitus also experience hyperacusis—but the two conditions don’t always go together.
Experts recommend that patients with severe tinnitus become educated about tinnitus and how they best deal with its symptoms. This can include learning about biofeedback in order to control stress and your reaction to tinnitus sounds, talking with a counselor, or joining a support group. Coping strategies are most useful for managing emotional side effects of tinnitus, such as anxiety, trouble sleeping, lack of focus and depression.
Tinnitus – a sound in the head with no external source – is not a disease; it is a symptom that can be triggered by a variety of different health conditions. So what causes tinnitus? Common sources include hearing loss, ear wax buildup, ototoxic medications, and ear bone changes. No matter what the cause, the condition interrupts the transmission of sound from the ear to the brain. Some part of the hearing system is involved as well, whether the outer, middle, or inner ear.
Most people should have a formal hearing test done by either the doctor or a hearing specialist (audiologist). People with tinnitus in only one ear and hearing loss should have gadolinium-enhanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). People with tinnitus in only one ear and normal hearing should have an MRI if tinnitus lasts more than 6 months. People with pulsatile tinnitus often require magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) and sometimes angiography.
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.
Medication. Some medications are known to be ototoxic while others list tinnitus as a side effect without causing permanent damage to the ear structures. New medications come out so often that it is difficult to maintain an up to date listing; another option, if you are experiencing tinnitus and are curious if it could be your medication, is to talk to your pharmacist or look up your specific prescriptions online through a website such as www.drugs.com. You should never stop a medication without consulting with your physician, even if you think it may be contributing to your tinnitus.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT uses techniques such as cognitive restructuring and relaxation to change the way patients think about and respond to tinnitus. Patients usually keep a diary and perform "homework" to help build their coping skills. Therapy is generally short-term — for example, weekly sessions for two to six months. A 2010 review of six studies by the Cochrane Collaboration (an international group of health authorities who evaluate randomized trials) found that after CBT, the sound was no less loud, but it was significantly less bothersome, and patients' quality of life improved.
Some patients choose to get involved in “tinnitus retraining,” which involves wearing a device in the ears that provides soothing music or noise, along with undergoing counseling. The goal is to help your body and brain learn to get accustomed to tinnitus noise, which reduces your negative reactions to unwanted sounds. Support and counseling during the process can be helpful for reducing anxiety. Researchers are now learning more about the benefits of coherent cognitive behavioral therapy interventions to help treat distress associated with tinnitus. (3)
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).
Imagine you’re settling in for a night’s rest. In your quiet bedroom, you’re tune right into those tinnitus noises—and you can’t shake your focus on them. You start to wonder about how you’ll ever fall asleep with these sounds in your ears. You think about the rest you’re missing out on because you’re not already asleep, and you wonder how you’ll have the energy to make it through your day.
Individuals with tinnitus describe perceiving a wide variety of sounds including ringing, clicking, hissing, humming, chirping, buzzing, whistling, whooshing, roaring, and/or whirling. These sounds may be present at all times, or they may come and go. The volume, pitch or quality of tinnitus sounds can fluctuate as well. Some people report that their tinnitus is most obvious when outside sounds are low (i.e. during the night). Other individuals describe their tinnitus as loud even in the presence of external sounds or noise, and some describe it as exacerbated by sounds. Tinnitus can affect one ear or both ears. It can also sound like it is inside the head and not in the ears at all.
Tinnitus retraining therapy is a form of treatment that tries to retrain the nerve pathways associated with hearing that may allow the brain to get used to the abnormal sounds. Habituation allows the brain to ignore the tinnitus noise signal, and it allows the person to become unaware that it is present unless they specifically concentrate on the noise. This treatment involves counseling and wearing a sound generator. Audiologists and otolaryngologists often work together in offering this treatment.
Tinnitus can be caused by a variety of less common underlying conditions or injuries. If you have tinnitus, start your treatment path by seeking out a hearing healthcare professional who specializes in tinnitus diagnostics so they can help identify the underlying cause. If the common causes for tinnitus are ruled out, the practitioner will refer you to another specialist for further evaluation. Listed below are related medical specialties who might be able to help you determine the cause of your tinnitus.
Due to the large variability in tinnitus, a one-size-fits-all approach (as offered by maskers) will have limited benefits. Indeed, there is evidence that being able to customize a sound therapy (e.g., using the tinnitus pitch or hearing loss profile), will provide greater benefits7,8 for tinnitus sufferers. Given the evidence supporting this line of thinking and the limitations of existing tinnitus management options, we were driven to develop and rigorously test an enjoyable, personalized sound therapy that has potential to provide lasting relief to tinnitus sufferers.
The treatment group (245 patients) received some elements of standard care (such as a masking device and hearing aid if needed), but also received CBT. The CBT included an extensive educational session, sessions with a clinical psychologist and group treatments involving “psychological education” explaining their condition, cognitive restructuring, exposure techniques, stress relief, applied relaxation and movement therapy.
While there may be a wide range of causes, an important underlying factor for the development of tinnitus is brain plasticity.5,7 This property allows the brain to change and adapt, and it is essential to how we learn. Unfortunately, in some cases, such as with hearing loss, the auditory part of the brain may be altered as brain plasticity tries to compensate for the abnormal auditory inputs. This response leads to changes in brain activity in the auditory system (e.g., the auditory cortex) that can create a phantom percept: tinnitus. As such, while tinnitus may begin a problem at the auditory periphery, it persists because of changes throughout the auditory system. Treating tinnitus may require addressing both the initiator (e.g., hearing loss) and the driver (changes in the auditory brain).
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.
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.