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.
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Sound therapies are one method that has previously been shown to reduce the severity of tinnitus. While not all sound therapies have gone through rigorous clinical testing, they have far greater traction and adoption in the tinnitus community. There are two types of sound therapy approaches: (1) maskers that are intended to block out the tinnitus and have the patient learn to ignore their tinnitus, and (2) sound therapies that utilize the same brain plasticity that is thought to be causing the tinnitus for the purpose of reducing it. Both approaches can be delivered via electronic devices that can produce sound. There has been an increase in tinnitus maskers that are built into hearing aids. These built-in maskers generate different sounds including white noise and random tones. Unfortunately, due to their design, hearing aids are still limited to providing masking at frequencies below 8 kHz.
Tinnitus is not a disease but a symptom that can result from a number of underlying causes. One of the most common causes is noise-induced hearing loss. Other causes include ear infections, disease of the heart or blood vessels, Ménière's disease, brain tumors, emotional stress, exposure to certain medications, a previous head injury, and earwax. It is more common in those with depression.
Tinnitus is a symptom, not a disease. Most cases are due to damage to the microscopic endings of the sensory nerve in the inner ear, commonly from exposure to loud noise (as from amplified music or gunfire). Other causes include allergy, high or low blood pressure, a tumor, diabetes, thyroid dysfunction, and head or neck injury. In addition, some drugs, including aspirin and other anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, sedatives, and antidepressants can also cause tinnitus. If so, changing drugs or lowering the dosage usually helps.
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.
With respect to incidence (the table above is about prevalence), Martinez et al (2015) reported that there were 5.4 new cases of tinnitus per 10,000 person-years in England. We don't find this statistic much use as tinnitus is highly prevalent in otherwise normal persons. It seems to us that their study is more about how many persons with tinnitus were detected by the health care system -- and that it is more a study of England's health care system than of tinnitus.
Various techniques can help make tinnitus tolerable, although the ability to tolerate it varies from person to person. Many people find that background sound helps mask the tinnitus and helps them fall asleep. Some people play background music. Other people use a tinnitus masker, which is a device worn like a hearing aid that produces a constant level of neutral sounds. For the profoundly deaf, an implant in the cochlea (the organ of hearing) may reduce tinnitus but is only done for people with severe to profound hearing loss in both ears. If these standard techniques are not helpful, people may want to seek treatment in clinics that specialize in the treatment of tinnitus.
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).
When tinnitus is unexpected and unwelcomed, it can lead to a negative reaction to the tinnitus. This can create a vicious cycle. When tinnitus is perceived, it can prompt emotions, including frustration, fear, unhappiness, etc. These can, in turn, cause physical reactions such as anxiety and stress. This reinforces the tinnitus and perpetuates the cycle.
Some tinnitus sufferers have experienced relief through hearing aids, but studies indicate that such benefits are limited to those with low-frequency tinnitus.8 For those with a tinnitus pitch above 5–6 kHz or those with a hissing or buzzing tinnitus, the benefits of hearing aids are more limited or even nonexistent. This makes sense from a neuroscience point of view, as the hearing aid will typically not be making up for hearing loss at frequencies above 6–8 kHz; this prevents any possible effects on tinnitus types that are caused by changes to higher frequency regions in the auditory system. While hearing aids are essential to improving the lives of the hearing impaired, they are not typically the best option for tinnitus; especially when used alone.
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.
Acoustic neuroma: This is a rare subjective cause of tinnitus, and includes a certain type of brain tumor known as an acoustic neuroma. The tumors grow on the nerve that supplies hearing and can cause tinnitus. This type of the condition usually are only noticed in one ear, unlike the more common sort caused by hearing loss usually seen in both ears. Causes of objective tinnitus are usually easier to find.
According to ATA, The American Tinnitus Association, 45 million Americans are struggling with tinnitus. In Germany the “Deutsche Tinnitus-Liga” estimates that 19 million Germans have experienced tinnitus, and that 2,7 million Germans have persistent tinnitus, of which 1 million have very severe tinnitus. The British Tinnitus Association estimates that 10% of the UK population suffers from tinnitus. Read more about the prevalence of tinnitus.
Vascular issues. Some people have blood vessels near their ears that are capable of causing tinnitus. I have found that if the blood pressure is elevated, this increased pressure can cause that dreaded ringing in your ears or even a whooshing sound. Because pregnant women often have elevated blood pressure, they are easily susceptible to tinnitus. Tinnitus caused by pregnancy should go away with an over the counter tinnitus treatment and once the baby is born. An overactive thyroid has also been shown to causes vascular issues that bring on 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.
If your mind is occupied with something absorbing, it is easier to forget about the tinnitus. Work, leisure pursuits and other interests can all help to provide a worthwhile focus. If you don't have a hobby, now might be the time to start something, many people say that painting or writing helps. Bear in mind however, that excessive activity may produce stress, so take time for relaxing activities and social interaction where possible.
Lidocaine, a medication used for the treatment of certain types of abnormal heart rhythms, has been shown to relieve tinnitus for some people, but it must be given intravenously or into the middle ear to be effective. However, the benefits of lidocaine are almost always outweighed by the risks of the drug and it is therefore not recommended and not used for tinnitus.