Along the path a hearing signal travels to get from the inner ear to the brain, there are many places where things can go wrong to cause tinnitus. If scientists can understand what goes on in the brain to start tinnitus and cause it to persist, they can look for those places in the system where a therapeutic intervention could stop tinnitus in its tracks.
There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that some tinnitus is a consequence of neuroplastic alterations in the central auditory pathway. These alterations are assumed to result from a disturbed sensory input, caused by hearing loss. Hearing loss could indeed cause a homeostatic response of neurons in the central auditory system, and therefore cause tinnitus.
Various techniques can help make tinnitus tolerable, although the ability to tolerate it varies from person to person. Many people find that background sound helps mask the tinnitus and helps them fall asleep. Some people play background music. Other people use a tinnitus masker, which is a device worn like a hearing aid that produces a constant level of neutral sounds. For the profoundly deaf, an implant in the cochlea (the organ of hearing) may reduce tinnitus but is only done for people with severe to profound hearing loss in both ears. If these standard techniques are not helpful, people may want to seek treatment in clinics that specialize in the treatment of tinnitus.
The most common noise is the sound of rapid or turbulent blood flow in major vessels of the neck. This abnormal blood flow may occur because of a reduced red blood cell count (anemia) or a blockage of the arteries (atherosclerosis) and may be worsened in people with poorly controlled high blood pressure (hypertension). Some small tumors of the middle ear called glomus tumors are rich in blood vessels. Although the tumors are small, they are very near the sound-receiving structures of the ear, and blood flow through them can sometimes be heard (only in one ear). Sometimes, blood vessel malformations that involve abnormal connections between arteries and veins (arteriovenous malformations) develop in the membrane covering the brain (the dura). If these malformations are near the ear, the person sometimes can hear blood flowing through them.
Cartoon of the middle ear showing muscles that attach to ossicles (ear bones), and ear drum. The stapedius is attached to the stapes (of course -- horseshoe object above), while the tensor tympani is attached to the ear drum. While useful, be aware that there are multiple errors in this illustration from Loyola Medical School. With permission, from: http://www.meddean.luc.edu/lumen/meded/grossanatomy/dissector/mml/images/stap.jpg
Somatic tinnitus is caused, worsened, or otherwise related to your body’s own sensory system. Sensory signals coming from various parts of the body are disrupted, causing a spasm that produces tinnitus. Those who have somatic tinnitus usually have it in only one ear. Depending on the root cause your doctor may come up with treatment options to alleviate the symptoms.
The physician may also request an OAE test (which is very sensitive to noise induced hearing damage), an ECochG (looking for Meniere's disease and hydrops, an MRI/MRA test (scan of the brain), a VEMP (looking for damage to other parts of the ear) and several blood tests (ANA, B12, FTA, ESR, SMA-24, HBA-IC, fasting glucose, TSH, anti-microsomal antibodies).
Tinnitus is believed to be caused by inner ear cell damage. Cilia in your inner ear move in relation to the pressure of sound waves. This triggers these cells to release an electrical signal through a nerve from your ear (auditory nerve) to your brain. Your brain interprets these signals as sound. If the hairs inside your inner ear are bent or broken, they can "leak" random electrical impulses to your brain, causing tinnitus.
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.
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.
When we hear, sound waves travel through the ear into the cochlea, our hearing organ in the inner ear. The cochlea is lined with thousands of tiny sound-sensing cells called hair cells. These hair cells change the sound waves into electrical signals. The hearing nerve then sends these electrical signals to the hearing part of the brain, which analyses them and recognises them as sound.
If you develop tinnitus, it's important to see your clinician. She or he will take a medical history, give you a physical examination, and do a series of tests to try to find the source of the problem. She or he will also ask you to describe the noise you're hearing (including its pitch and sound quality, and whether it's constant or periodic, steady or pulsatile) and the times and places in which you hear it. Your clinician will review your medical history, your current and past exposure to noise, and any medications or supplements you're taking. Tinnitus can be a side effect of many medications, especially when taken at higher doses (see "Some drugs that can cause or worsen tinnitus").
This study has several strengths. It included a relatively large number of patients, reducing the possibility of bias by “masking” which treatment patients received, classifying participants according to the severity of their tinnitus and using highly standardised interventions. Also, the researchers used established scales to measure the severity of tinnitus and its impact on quality of life.
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The multidisciplinary approach required input from many different professionals including audiologists, psychologists, speech therapists and physical therapists. Which particular care elements of the intervention had the greatest effect is unknown. A multidisciplinary approach such as the intervention trialled here may have resource implications if it were introduced into standard clinical practice.
The exact biological process by which hearing loss is associated with tinnitus is still being investigated by researchers. However, we do know that the loss of certain sound frequencies leads to specific changes in how the brain processes sound. In short, as the brain receives less external stimuli around a specific frequency, it begins to adapt and change. Tinnitus may be the brain’s way of filling in the missing sound frequencies it no longer receives from the auditory system.
Technology and portable music devices also contribute to noise pollution, especially in younger people. Keep the volume of your phone, MP3 players or iPod on the lower end when listening to headphones, and don’t play very loud noises for long durations of time. To aid in tinnitus treatment, look out for changes in your ability to hear if you’re frequently exposed to loud noises, limit use of headphones or consider wearing earplugs.
Tinnitus (pronounced ti-ni-tis), or ringing in the ears, is the sensation of hearing ringing, buzzing, hissing, chirping, whistling, or other sounds. The noise can be intermittent or continuous, and can vary in loudness. It is often worse when background noise is low, so you may be most aware of it at night when you're trying to fall asleep in a quiet room. In rare cases, the sound beats in sync with your heart (pulsatile tinnitus).