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.
To understand what causes tinnitus, you first need to understand what tinnitus is. Tinnitus is, very simply, unexplainable noises you hear in your head when there is no actual sound present. A person with tinnitus will often hear a whistling, humming, buzzing, whooshing, clicking or ringing in their ears, even when there is nothing in the area that is emitting that particular sound. It may be intermittent or last only a short time or never seem to stop.
Prevention involves avoiding loud noise. If there is an underlying cause, treating it may lead to improvements. Otherwise, typically, management involves talk therapy. Sound generators or hearing aids may help some. As of 2013, there were no effective medications. It is common, affecting about 10–15% of people. Most, however, tolerate it well, and it is a significant problem in only 1–2% of people. The word tinnitus is from the Latin tinnīre which means "to ring".
As an initial test of our treatment, we first conducted a small pilot study to see if there were measurable benefits within 3 to 6 months of using this therapy. While we did not inform participants of whether they would receive a treatment or unaltered music, every participant in fact received a treatment. Participants reported a drop in scores on the Tinnitus Handicap Inventory (THI) within 3 months of using their personalized sound therapy for about 2 hours a day. THI is a psychometrically robust and validated questionnaire that assesses the impact of tinnitus on daily living and the degree of distress suffered by the tinnitus patient. Furthermore, we saw increased benefits after 6 months of treatment use (Figure 1). This data suggested that our treatment may be engaging brain plasticity in a positive manner, thereby gradually reducing tinnitus over time. Armed with this information, we designed a more rigorous trial that is very uncommon among research in tinnitus therapies.
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.
Experts recommend that patients with severe tinnitus become educated about tinnitus and how they best deal with its symptoms. This can include learning about biofeedback in order to control stress and your reaction to tinnitus sounds, talking with a counselor, or joining a support group. Coping strategies are most useful for managing emotional side effects of tinnitus, such as anxiety, trouble sleeping, lack of focus and depression.
Unfortunately that means tinnitus is a very complicated condition that involves several systems of the body. The good news, though, is that as doctors and researchers have developed a better understanding of the mechanisms behind tinnitus, they’ve also been able to develop new and promising treatments that target the brain rather than the ear — and have more of a chance of actually reversing the problem.
Though the exact cause of tinnitus — as in the specific mechanism that creates these phantom sounds in some people — remains unknown, contributing factors and triggers have been identified. Excessive exposure to loud noise is often a factor because of the damage done to your auditory system. Tinnitus may also result from jaw-joint dysfunction (e.g., teeth grinding, temporomandibular joint disorder) or chronic neck muscle strain.
Millions of Americans experience tinnitus, often to a debilitating degree, making it one of the most common health conditions in the country. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that nearly 15% of the general public — over 50 million Americans — experience some form of tinnitus. Roughly 20 million people struggle with burdensome chronic tinnitus, while 2 million have extreme and debilitating cases.1