Tinnitus usually comes in the form of a high-pitched tone in one or both ears, but can also sound like a clicking, roaring or whooshing sound. While tinnitus isn't fully understood, it is known to be a sign that something is wrong in the auditory system: the ear, the auditory nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain, or 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 arise from a number of health conditions. For example, when sensory cells in the inner ear are damaged from loud noise, the resulting hearing loss changes some of the signals in the brain to cause tinnitus.
The treatment involves implanting a small electrode into a person’s neck near the vagus nerve. The patient then listens to specific tones that are paired with small electric pulses sent to the vagus nerve. This vagus nerve stimulation, coupled with the sound-based stimulation of the auditory cortex, can “turn down” the patient’s tinnitus. Though, Kilgard adds, “It’s not 100 percent yet.”
The sound perceived may range from a quiet background noise to one that can be heard even over loud external sounds. The specific type of tinnitus called pulsatile tinnitus is characterized by hearing the sounds of one's own pulse or muscle contractions, which is typically a result of sounds that have been created by the movement of muscles near to one's ear, or the sounds are related to blood flow of the neck or face.
The important thing to remember about tinnitus is that the brain’s response to these random electrical signals determines whether or not a person is annoyed by their tinnitus or not. Magnetoencephalography (MEG, for short) studies have been used to study tinnitus and the brain. MEG takes advantage of the fact that every time neurons send each other signals, their electric current creates a tiny magnetic field. MEG allows scientists to detect such changing patterns of activity in the brain 100 times per second. These studies indicated tinnitus affects the entire brain and helps with understanding why certain therapies are more effective than others.
Pulsatile tinnitus is a rare type of tinnitus that sounds like a rhythmic pulsing in the ear, usually in time with your heartbeat. A doctor may be able to hear it by pressing a stethoscope against your neck or by placing a tiny microphone inside the ear canal. This kind of tinnitus is most often caused by problems with blood flow in the head or neck. Pulsatile tinnitus also may be caused by brain tumors or abnormalities in brain structure.
A loud work environment. A loud work environment that involves the use of power tools, power saws, drills or other noisy equipment may cause temporary bouts of tinnitus. I know of many tinnitus suffers who have attended rock concerts and left with ringing in their ears that may take hours or even days to subside. The longer a person remains in that loud environment, the better their chances will be of developing the condition permanently. These environments can also cause hearing loss. Always wear earplugs when you are in a loud environment, even if it is only going to be for a short time. Mowing the lawn? Wear earplugs.
To keep the brain activated and aware, Kilgard’s therapy involves stimulating the vagus nerve, which is actually a pair of nerves that runs inside the neck and into the brain. “All the stuff you brains learns about your body — it all comes in through the vagus nerve,” he says. “We trick the brain into thinking it’s learning something important by stimulating this nerve in the neck.”
Superior semicircular canal dehiscence syndrome is another not uncommon cause of pulsatile tinnitus. The superior semicircular canal is one of three canals found in the vestibular apparatus of the inner ear. The vestibular apparatus helps to maintain equilibrium and balance. In this syndrome, a part of the temporal bone that overlies the superior semicircular canal is abnormally thin or absent. Superior semicircular canal dehiscence syndrome can affect both hearing and balance to different degrees.
Muscular tinnitus can be caused by several degenerative diseases that affect the head and neck including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or multiple sclerosis. Myoclonus can also cause muscular tinnitus, especially palatal myoclonus, which is characterized by abnormal contractions of the muscles of the roof of the mouth. Spasms of the stapedial muscle (which attaches to the stapes bone or stirrup), which is the smallest muscle in the body, and tensor tympani muscle, both of which are located in the middle ear, have also been associated with objective tinnitus. Myoclonus or muscle spasms may be caused by an underlying disorder such as a tumor, tissue death caused by lack of oxygen (infarction), or degenerative disease, but it is most commonly a benign and self-limiting problem.
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.
For some people, the jarring motion of brisk walking can produce what is called a seismic effect which causes movement in the small bones or contractions in the muscles of the middle ear space. You can experiment to find out if this is the cause by walking slowly and smoothly to see if the clicking is present. Then, try walking quickly and with a lot of motion to see if you hear the clicking. You can also test for the seismic effect by moving your head up and down quickly.