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.
Research shows a frequent correlation between tinnitus and hearing loss. Because tinnitus is perceived differently by each sufferer, an exact diagnosis is essential. A doctor may conduct ENT, dental, orthodontic, and orthopedic examinations in order to establish whether a case can be medically treated or not. The pitch and volume of tinnitus can be determined by special diagnostic test, and a hearing test can reveal whether hearing loss is also involved. Treatment with hearing aids is often the first step to relief from tinnitus. Hearing aids compensate for hearing loss, which enables concentration on external sounds instead of internal noises.
High-pitched ringing. Exposure to a very loud noise or a blow to the ear can cause a high-pitched ringing or buzzing that usually goes away after a few hours. However, if there's hearing loss as well, tinnitus may be permanent. Long-term noise exposure, age-related hearing loss or medications can cause a continuous, high-pitched ringing in both ears. Acoustic neuroma can cause continuous, high-pitched ringing in one ear.
The outlook for tinnitus depends on its cause. In people with tinnitus related to earwax buildup or medications, the condition usually will go away when the earwax is removed or the medication is stopped. In people with tinnitus related to sudden, loud noise, tinnitus may improve gradually, although there may be some permanent noise-related hearing loss.
Most people who suffer from tinnitus also experience hearing loss to some degree. As they often accompany one another, the two conditions may be correlated. In fact, some researchers believe that subjective tinnitus can only occur if the auditory system has been previously damaged (source). The loss of certain sound frequencies due to hearing loss may change how the brain processes sound, causing it to adapt and fill in the gaps with tinnitus. The underlying hearing loss typically results from exposure to loud noises or advanced age:
According to ATA, The American Tinnitus Association, 45 million Americans are struggling with tinnitus. In Germany the “Deutsche Tinnitus-Liga” estimates that 19 million Germans have experienced tinnitus, and that 2,7 million Germans have persistent tinnitus, of which 1 million have very severe tinnitus. The British Tinnitus Association estimates that 10% of the UK population suffers from tinnitus. Read more about the prevalence of tinnitus.
Objects or insects in the ear can be placed in the ear by patients themselves, or an insect crawling in the ear. Ear wax can also cause ear problems if Q-tips are overused to clean the ears. Symptoms of an object in the ear are inflammation and sensitivity, redness, or discharge of pus or blood. When to seek medical care for an object or insect in the ear is included in the article information.
Vertigo is the sensation of spinning or rocking, even when someone is at rest. Vertigo may be caused by a problem in the brain or spinal cord or a problem within in the inner ear. Head injuries, certain medications, and female gender are associated with a higher risk of vertigo. Medical history, a physical exam, and sometimes an MRI or CT scan are required to diagnose vertigo. The treatment of vertigo may include:
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.
Often people bring in very long lists of medications that have been reported, once or twice, to be associated with tinnitus. This unfortunate behavior makes it very hard to care for these patients -- as it puts one into an impossible situation where the patient is in great distress but is also unwilling to attempt any treatment. Specialists who care for patients with ear disease, usually know very well which drugs are problems (such as those noted above), and which ones are nearly always safe.
Assessment of psychological processes related to tinnitus involves measurement of tinnitus severity and distress (i.e., nature and extent of tinnitus-related problems), measured subjectively by validated self-report tinnitus questionnaires. These questionnaires measure the degree of psychological distress and handicap associated with tinnitus, including effects on hearing, lifestyle, health and emotional functioning. A broader assessment of general functioning, such as levels of anxiety, depression, stress, life stressors and sleep difficulties, is also important in the assessment of tinnitus due to higher risk of negative well-being across these areas, which may be affected by or exacerbate the tinnitus symptoms for the individual. Overall, current assessment measures are aimed to identify individual levels of distress and interference, coping responses and perceptions of tinnitus in order to inform treatment and monitor progress. However, wide variability, inconsistencies and lack of consensus regarding assessment methodology are evidenced in the literature, limiting comparison of treatment effectiveness. Developed to guide diagnosis or classify severity, most tinnitus questionnaires have been shown to be treatment-sensitive outcome measures.
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.
In many cases, tinnitus is caused by hyperactivity (or too much activity) in the brain’s auditory cortex. “When there’s damage or a loss of input in the ear [such as hearing loss, head trauma, or a blood vessel problem], the brain tries to turn up certain channels in order to compensate,” Dr. Kilgard explains. When the brain doesn’t get that tuning quite right, the result is tinnitus.
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.
Your doctor will try to determine what is causing the condition. If it is not due to a medication side effect or a general medical condition (such as high blood pressure), he or she may refer you to an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat doctor) or an audiologist (hearing specialist). It is especially important to see an otolaryngologist if you experience tinnitus in only one ear, tinnitus that sounds like your heartbeat or pulse (pulsatile tinnitus), tinnitus with sudden or fluctuating hearing loss, pressure or fullness in one or both ears, and/or dizziness or balance problems. Unless the cause of the tinnitus is obvious on physical examination, a hearing test is usually required.
There's no known cure for tinnitus. Current treatments generally involve masking the sound or learning to ignore it. A research team led by Dr. Michael Kilgard at the University of Texas at Dallas and Dr. Navzer Engineer at MicroTransponder, Inc. set out to see if they could develop a way to reverse tinnitus by essentially resetting the brain's auditory system. Their work was funded in part by NIH’s National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD).
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.
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.
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
Shelly-Anne Li is the VP of clinical research and operations at Sound Options Tinnitus Treatments Inc. As a research methodology consultant for various projects, she brings expertise in health research methods, as well as experience from conducting multi-site randomized controlled trials, mixed methods studies and qualitative research. Shelly-Anne Li is currently a PhD candidate at University of Toronto, and obtained her MSc (health sciences) from McMaster University.
Cochlear implants are sometimes used in people who have tinnitus along with severe hearing loss. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged portion of the inner ear and sends electrical signals that directly stimulate the auditory nerve. The device brings in outside sounds that help mask tinnitus and stimulate change in the neural circuits. Read the NIDCD fact sheet Cochlear Implants for more information.
Loud noise is the leading cause of damage to the inner ear. Most patients with noise trauma describe a whistling tinnitus (Nicholas-Puel et al,. 2002). In a large study of tinnitus, avoidance of occupational noise was one of two factors most important in preventing tinnitus (Sindhusake et al. 2003). The other important factor was the rapidity of treating ear infections.
Seek treatment for hearing problems. If you’re experiencing difficulty hearing, talk to your physician and seek help from an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose throat specialist) or an audiologist. In addition to addressing any underlying health issue and improving your quality of life, improving your hearing can make tinnitus less noticeable and less bothersome, during the day and at night when you’re trying to sleep.
Over the last 40 years of treating patients suffering from tinnitus, there’s been one over the counter medication that has shown the greatest promise. While it doesn’t provide relief for everyone, I continue to see an 87% efficacy rate in my patients. The treatment, which does not require a prescription, is known as Tinnitus Control and is available online at http://www.tinnituscontrol.com
Biofeedback and stress management. Tinnitus is stressful, and stress can worsen tinnitus. Biofeedback is a relaxation technique that helps control stress by changing bodily responses. Electrodes attached to the skin feed information about physiological processes such as pulse, skin temperature, and muscle tension into a computer, which displays the output on a monitor. Patients learn how to alter these processes and reduce the body's stress response by changing their thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques may also help.
Experts believe that tinnitus is associated with neural (brain and nerve) injuries that affect the auditory pathway and therefore someone’s ability to hear sounds. (10) Most of the time, tinnitus is a result of a disorder that affects parts of either the outer, inner or middle ear. The good news is that the majority of cases are not linked to any serious illness, although some cases are.
Tinnitus (pronounced tih-NITE-us or TIN-ih-tus) is sound in the head with no external source. For many, it's a ringing sound, while for others, it's whistling, buzzing, chirping, hissing, humming, roaring, or even shrieking. The sound may seem to come from one ear or both, from inside the head, or from a distance. It may be constant or intermittent, steady or pulsating.