There are eight main causes of tinnitus that when avoided or removed from your life can help improve your tinnitus dramatically. Ironically, these 8 causes do not affect everyone in the same way. Some people will have no reaction to some of these tinnitus causes, while others will have a severe reaction. There’s no clear answer to why this is, but the condition is a growing one with one in five individuals who reach the age of fifty-five suffering from tinnitus.
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.
To answer your question about NAC (N-acetyl-L-cysteine), I’ve seen little evidence suggesting that is effective for tinnitus. Instead – though the research is very limited – multiple anecdotal reports describe success with the herb ginkgo biloba. Try taking two tablets of standardized extract of ginkgo three times a day with meals (no more than a total dose of 240 mg a day). Ginkgo may work by increasing blood circulation to the head and neck. Give it at least a two-month trial. You might also explore cranial therapy, a gentle manipulative technique performed by osteopathic physicians. This approach seems to take the pressure or irritation off the auditory nerves. If high blood pressure is responsible for your tinnitus, try to get that under control through diet, exercise, and weight loss or medication if necessary.
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.
The cause of tinnitus may be difficult to determine. Your doctor will ask if you have been exposed to loud noise at work or home and will ask about medications you take, including all herbs and supplements. He or she may look in your ears to see if you have wax blockage or if the eardrum appears abnormal. If your hearing is affected, then your doctor may have you undergo a hearing test called an audiogram to measure your hearing ability in each ear.
Some persons with severe TMJ (temporomandibular joint) arthritis have severe tinnitus. Generally these persons say that there is a "screeching" sound. This is another somatic tinnitus. TMJ is extremely common -- about 25% of the population. The exact prevalence of TMJ associated tinnitus is not established, but presumably it is rather high too. Having TMJ increases the odds that you have tinnitus too, by about a factor of 1.6-3.22 (Park and Moon, 2014; Lee et al, 2016). This is the a large risk factor for tinnitus, similar to the risk from hearing loss (see table above).
Addressing Any TMJ Disorders. A small percentage of people will experience tinnitus if they are having problems with their temporomandibular joint. This joint is located in front of the ears, on each side of the head, where the lower jawbone meets the skull. In these rare cases, a dental treatment or bite realignment may relieve you of the ringing you hear in your ears.
Another example of somatic tinnitus is that caused by temperomandibular joint disorder. The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is where the lower jaw connects to the skull, and is located in front of the ears. Damage to the muscles, ligaments, or cartilage in the TMJ can lead to tinnitus symptoms. The TMJ is adjacent to the auditory system and shares some ligaments and nerve connections with structures in the middle ear.
The noise heard by people with tinnitus may be a buzzing, ringing, roaring, whistling, or hissing sound and is often associated with hearing loss. Some people hear more complex sounds that may be different at different times. These sounds are more noticeable in a quiet environment and when people are not concentrating on something else. Thus, tinnitus tends to be most disturbing to people when they are trying to sleep. However, the experience of tinnitus is highly individual. Some people are very disturbed by their symptoms, whereas others find them quite bearable.
Don't give up on things unless you are sure they are having some effect, especially if it's something you enjoy; or you could end up feeling miserable and deprived for no reason. Do not give up several things at once, or you will not know which one was affecting your tinnitus. If you decide to limit these things and fancy the occasional treat, maybe try using the other strategies (such as relaxation) for those times when your tinnitus is a bit louder. For more details, see our information on Food, drink and 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.
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.
Masking Devices. Similar to the white noise machines listed above, there are now masking devices that can be worn in the ear, just like a hearing aid, that do almost the same thing. They produce low-level white noise that can suppresses your tinnitus symptoms by training your brain to focus on them instead of the ringing in your ears. These are perfect if you can’t always have a white noise machine running near you.
A poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, lack of sleep and chronic stress are all capable of reducing immunity and making you susceptible to nerve damage, allergies and ear problems. If you frequently experience seasonal or food allergies that affect your ears, ear infections, swelling and other problems related to damage of the vestibular system, consider changing your diet, exercise routine and ways of dealing with stress, which in turn will aid your tinnitus treatment. Try natural stress relievers like exercising, yoga, meditation, taking warm baths, using essential oils and spending more time outdoors, and eat an anti-inflammatory diet.
One of the big problems associated with curing tinnitus, experts say, is that it’s really a symptom of multiple conditions, as opposed to being a single condition with a predictable trigger. In fact, more than 200 different conditions — problems ranging from hearing loss to head or neck trauma — have been linked with tinnitus, which makes it a real bear to try to stop. (3)
Tinnitus habituation therapies, such as tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT), involve using low level sounds in a graduated fashion to decrease the perception of tinnitus. This differs from use of masking devices such as described earlier. TRT involves a wearable device that an affected individual can adjust so that the level of sound emitting from the device is about equal to or matches the tinnitus sound. This may be called the “mixing point” because the sound from the device and the tinnitus sound begin to mix together. An affected individual must repeatedly adjust the device so that the sound is at or just below the mixing point. TRT is supported by counseling with a trained professional who can teach the individual the proper techniques to maximize the effectiveness of TRT. Eventually, by following this method, affected individuals no longer need the external sound generating device. Affected individuals will become accustomed to the tinnitus sound (habituation), except when they choose to focus on it. Even then the sound will not be bothersome or troubling. The theory is akin to a person’s ability to ignore sounds such as the hum of air conditioner, the refrigerator motor turning on, or raindrops falling on the roof when driving a car in the rain.
This well-designed study found that using CBT alongside elements of standard therapy can help patients with tinnitus of varying severity. However, the differences in outcomes between the two groups were quite small, and this technique can only help manage tinnitus rather than curing it, as some papers implied. Also, the patients in the study were followed for only 12 months, so it is unclear whether this approach can help in the longer term.
Tinnitus is not a disease in and of itself, but rather a symptom of some other underlying health condition. In most cases, tinnitus is a sensorineural reaction in the brain to damage in the ear and auditory system. While tinnitus is often associated with hearing loss, there are roughly 200 different health disorders that can generate tinnitus as a symptom. Below is a list of some of the most commonly reported catalysts for tinnitus.
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.
Resetting the tonotopic map. Researchers are exploring how to take advantage of the tonotopic map, which organizes neurons in the auditory cortex according to the frequency of the sound to which they respond. Previous research has shown a change in the organization of the tonotopic map after exposing the ear to intense noise. By understanding how these changes happen, researchers could develop techniques to bring the map back to normal and relieve tinnitus.
Generally, following the initial evaluation, individuals suspected of rhythmic tinnitus will undergo some form of specialized medical imaging. Individuals may undergo high resolution computed tomography (HRCT) or magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) to evaluate blood vessel abnormalities such as a vascular malformation that may be the cause of tinnitus. An HRCT scan can also be used to evaluate the temporal bone for sinus wall abnormalities and superior semicircular canal dehiscence. HRCT uses a narrow x-ray beam and advanced computer analysis to create highly detailed images of structures within the body such as blood vessels. An MRA is done with the same equipment use for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI uses a magnetic field and radio waves to produce cross-sectional images of particular structures or tissues within the body. An MRA provides detailed information about blood vessels. In some cases, before the scan, an intravenous line is inserted into a vein to release a special dye (contrast). This contrast highlights the blood vessels, thereby enhancing the results of the scan.
Patulous Eustachian tubes can be associated with tinnitus. The Eustachian tube is a small canal that connects the middle ear to the back of the nose and upper throat. The Eustachian tube normally remains closed. In individuals with a patulous Eustachian tube, the tube is abnormally open. Consequently, talking, chewing, swallowing and other similar actions can cause vibrations directly onto the ear drum. For example, affected individuals may hear blowing sounds that are synchronized with breathing.
Muscle spasms: Tinnitus that is described as clicking may be due to abnormalities that cause the muscle in the roof of the mouth (palate) to go into spasm. This causes the Eustachian tube, which helps equalize pressure in the ears, to repeatedly open and close. Multiple sclerosis and other neurologic diseases that are associated with muscle spasms may also be a cause of tinnitus, as they may lead to spasms of certain muscles in the middle ear that can cause the repetitive clicking.
A large, 2014 study of almost 14,000 people found obstructive sleep apnea was linked to significantly higher rates of hearing impairment and hearing loss. Scientists think one reason for this is changes to blood flow to the ear that result in inflammation. (We know that sleep apnea causes changes to circulation and weakens blood flow to some areas of the body, including the brain.) A related factor? People with sleep apnea are at greater risk for high blood pressure, and high blood pressure can exacerbate hearing loss, according to research.
Other potential sources of the sounds normally associated with tinnitus should be ruled out. For instance, two recognized sources of high-pitched sounds might be electromagnetic fields common in modern wiring and various sound signal transmissions. A common and often misdiagnosed condition that mimics tinnitus is radio frequency (RF) hearing, in which subjects have been tested and found to hear high-pitched transmission frequencies that sound similar to tinnitus.
Some people experience a sound that beats in time with their pulse, known as pulsatile tinnitus or vascular tinnitus. Pulsatile tinnitus is usually objective in nature, resulting from altered blood flow, increased blood turbulence near the ear, such as from atherosclerosis or venous hum, but it can also arise as a subjective phenomenon from an increased awareness of blood flow in the ear. Rarely, pulsatile tinnitus may be a symptom of potentially life-threatening conditions such as carotid artery aneurysm or carotid artery dissection. Pulsatile tinnitus may also indicate vasculitis, or more specifically, giant cell arteritis. Pulsatile tinnitus may also be an indication of idiopathic intracranial hypertension. Pulsatile tinnitus can be a symptom of intracranial vascular abnormalities and should be evaluated for irregular noises of blood flow (bruits).
Tinnitus that's continuous, steady, and high-pitched (the most common type) generally indicates a problem in the auditory system and requires hearing tests conducted by an audiologist. Pulsatile tinnitus calls for a medical evaluation, especially if the noise is frequent or constant. MRI or CT imaging may be needed to check for a tumor or blood vessel abnormality.