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.
Tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT). This technique is based on the assumption that tinnitus results from abnormal neuronal activity (see "What's going on?"). The aim is to habituate the auditory system to the tinnitus signals, making them less noticeable or less bothersome. The main components of TRT are individual counseling (to explain the auditory system, how tinnitus develops, and how TRT can help) and sound therapy. A device is inserted in the ear to generate low-level noise and environmental sounds that match the pitch, volume, and quality of the patient's tinnitus. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, treatment may last one to two years.
Every person living with tinnitus hears a unique sound. The sound can be a low or high frequency, and its volume and pitch may change over time, with the severity varying from person to person. Those with acute tinnitus may struggle to sleep, focus at work, or communicate with others. In such cases, treatment plays a crucial role in helping an individual regain control of his or her life.
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.
As of 2014 there were no medications effective for idiopathic tinnitus. There is not enough evidence to determine if antidepressants or acamprosate are useful. While there is tentative evidence for benzodiazepines, it is insufficient to support usage. Usefulness of melatonin, as of 2015, is unclear. It is unclear if anticonvulsants are useful for treating tinnitus. Steroid injections into the middle ear also do not seem to be effective.
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.
Almost every ENT, audiology practice, and hearing aid dispenser who claims to offer tinnitus treatment only offers one solution: hearing aids. While amplification may help some, only 50% of people living with tinnitus experience hearing loss that affects their understanding of speech, which means hearing aids are ineffective. At Sound Relief, we offer only evidence-based options like sound therapy and have seen countless patients experience life-changing results.
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).
If you have tinnitus, you might be feeling frustrated and helpless, but there is hope! The first step is to consult a hearing care professional at one of our consumer-reviewed clinics. There are also audiologists who specialize in managing tinnitus and many non-medical ways to help you regain your quality of life. Learn more through the links here and, when you’re ready, let us help you connect with a professional in your area.
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.
There are two types of tinnitus: subjective tinnitus and objective tinnitus. Tinnitus is usually subjective, meaning that there is no sound detectable by other means. Subjective tinnitus has also been called "tinnitus aurium", "non-auditory" or "non-vibratory" tinnitus. In very rare cases tinnitus can be heard by someone else using a stethoscope, and in less rare – but still uncommon – cases it can be measured as a spontaneous otoacoustic emission (SOAE) in the ear canal. In such cases it is objective tinnitus, also called "pseudo-tinnitus" or "vibratory" tinnitus.
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.
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.
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.
Tinnitus is the perception of sound when no actual external noise is present. While it is commonly referred to as “ringing in the ears,” tinnitus can manifest many different perceptions of sound, including buzzing, hissing, whistling, swooshing, and clicking. In some rare cases, tinnitus patients report hearing music. Tinnitus can be both an acute (temporary) condition or a chronic (ongoing) health malady.