Tinnitus can be extremely disturbing to people who have it. In many cases it is not a serious health problem, but rather a nuisance that may go away. However, some people with tinnitus may require medical or surgical treatment. Sixteen million Americans seek medical treatment each year for tinnitus, and about one-quarter of those experience it so severely it interferes with their daily activities.
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.
Prolonged exposure to loud sounds is the most common cause of tinnitus. Up to 90% of people with tinnitus have some level of noise-induced hearing loss. The noise causes permanent damage to the sound-sensitive cells of the cochlea, a spiral-shaped organ in the inner ear. Carpenters, pilots, rock musicians, street-repair workers, and landscapers are among those whose jobs put them at risk, as are people who work with chain saws, guns, or other loud devices or who repeatedly listen to loud music. A single exposure to a sudden extremely loud noise can also cause tinnitus.
Tinnitus is usually described as a ringing in the ears, but it can also sound like clicking, hissing, roaring, or buzzing. Tinnitus involves perceiving sound when no external noise is present. The sound can be very soft or very loud, and high-pitched or low-pitched. Some people hear it in one ear and others hear it in both. People with severe tinnitus may have problems hearing, working, or sleeping.
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.
Tinnitus can arise anywhere along the auditory pathway, from the outer ear through the middle and inner ear to the brain's auditory cortex, where it's thought to be encoded (in a sense, imprinted). One of the most common causes of tinnitus is damage to the hair cells in the cochlea (see "Auditory pathways and tinnitus"). These cells help transform sound waves into nerve signals. If the auditory pathways or circuits in the brain don't receive the signals they're expecting from the cochlea, the brain in effect "turns up the gain" on those pathways in an effort to detect the signal — in much the same way that you turn up the volume on a car radio when you're trying to find a station's signal. The resulting electrical noise takes the form of tinnitus — a sound that is high-pitched if hearing loss is in the high-frequency range and low-pitched if it's in the low-frequency range. This kind of tinnitus resembles phantom limb pain in an amputee — the brain is producing abnormal nerve signals to compensate for missing input.
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)
The content of the website and databases of the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) is copyrighted and may not be reproduced, copied, downloaded or disseminated, in any way, for any commercial or public purpose, without prior written authorization and approval from NORD. Individuals may print one hard copy of an individual disease for personal use, provided that content is unmodified and includes NORD’s copyright.
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).
About 25-30 million Americans have tinnitus as a condition, and they experience these noises on a regular, most often daily, basis. About 40 percent of people with tinnitus hear tinnitus noise through 80 percent of their day. And for a smaller group of people—about 1 in 5, tinnitus is disruptive enough to significantly interfere with daily functioning, becoming disabling or nearly disabling.
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.
Supporting the idea that central reorganization is overestimated as "the" cause of tinnitus, a recent study by Wineland et al showed no changes in central connectivity of auditory cortex or other key cortical regions (Wineland et al, 2012). Considering other parts of the brain, Ueyama et al (2013) reported that there was increased fMRI activity in the bilateral rectus gyri, as well as cingulate gyri correlating with distress. Loudness was correlated with values in the thalamus, bilateral hippocampus and left caudate. In other words, the changes in the brain associated with tinnitus seem to be associated with emotional reaction (e.g. cingulate), and input systems (e.g. thalamus). There are a few areas whose role is not so obvious (e.g. caudate). This makes a more sense than the Wineland result, but of course, they were measuring different things. MRI studies related to audition or dizziness must be interpreted with great caution as the magnetic field of the MRI stimulates the inner ear, and because MRI scanners are noisy.