If you're not sure of what is causing your tinnitus, a hearing care professional can help pinpoint the issue through a series of tests. It can be helpful to take notes of the sounds you are regularly or irregularly experience to help your hearing healthcare professional put together the clues to what may be causing it. Be sure to alert your practitioner of any pertinent medical history, medications or excessive noise exposure that could be playing a role in your tinnitus.
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.
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.”
Almost everyone has had tinnitus for a short time after being exposed to extremely loud noise. For example, attending a loud concert can trigger short-lived tinnitus. Some medications (especially aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs taken in high doses) can cause tinnitus that goes away when the drug is discontinued. When it lasts more than six months, it's known as chronic tinnitus. As many as 50 to 60 million people in the United States suffer from this condition; it's especially common in people over age 55 and strongly associated with hearing loss. Many people worry that tinnitus is a sign that they are going deaf or have another serious medical problem, but it rarely is.
Ask your doctor about experimental therapies. No cure for tinnitus has been found but research is ongoing, so you should be open to experimental therapies. Electronic and magnetic stimulation of the brain and nerves might correct the overactive nerve signals that cause tinnitus. These techniques are still in development, so ask your doctor or hearing specialist if trying one might be right for you.
If your doctor cannot find any medical condition responsible for your tinnitus, you may be referred to an otolaryngologist (commonly called an ear, nose, and throat doctor, or an ENT). The ENT will physically examine your head, neck, and ears and test your hearing to determine whether you have any hearing loss along with the tinnitus. You might also be referred to an audiologist who can also measure your hearing and evaluate your tinnitus.
John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.
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