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.
A wealth of research has gone into understanding the mechanisms of tinnitus due to the increased concern in our ageing and noise exposed society through the support of organizations such as the Tinnitus Research Institute, the American Tinnitus Association and even the US Department of Defense. This research has helped us to understand not only why and how this phantom percept can develop, but also sheds light on why it may sound like a hiss for one person and a high pitched tone for another.7 In addition, neuroscientists have shown connections between the limbic system (where emotions are processed) and the auditory system; it is not uncommon for tinnitus to increase during times of stress or negative emotions.5 As such, the effective tinnitus treatment strategies should be enjoyable and positive, and should account for the variability in what tinnitus sounds like for each patient.
No matter what the cause, the condition interrupts the transmission of sound from the ear to the brain. Some of the neural circuits no longer receive signals. Strangely, this does not cause hearing loss. Instead, when neural circuits don’t receive stimulation, they react by chattering together, alone at first and then synchronous with each other. Once the nerve cells become hyperactive and occur at the same time, they simulate a tone the brain “hears” as tinnitus. Analogous to a piano, the broken “keys” create a permanent tone without a pianist playing the keys.
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).
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.
Tinnitus is a non-curable, invisible and debilitating hearing disorder that can take on many different forms – ringing, hissing, buzzing, and even the sound of crickets. Almost everyone has experienced brief periods of mild tinnitus, but for many, this sound can be permanent. Over 360,000 Canadians report suffering from chronic tinnitus, and almost half of those are severely affected.1 In the US, over 16 million tinnitus sufferers seek treatment every year.2 Tinnitus is the number one disability claim for US veterans3 and has also become the top disability claim for current and former male RCMP members.4 This persistent sound can have a serious impact on quality of life; leading to sleep deprivation, depression, anxiety, and even suicide. What adds to the challenges faced by tinnitus sufferers is a lack of knowledge, support and options available to them. Unfortunately, there are currently too few health care professionals providing services to tinnitus sufferers who are seeking ways to manage their tinnitus. Unfortunately, the phrase “learn to live with it” is still heard far too often by those that seek help for tinnitus.
We encourage you to avoid anything that can make your tinnitus worse. For instance, you may want to avoid smoking, drinking alcohol, or listening to loud noises. Another precaution is protection. If you’re a construction worker, airport worker, hunter, or regularly exposed to loud noise, you should wear custom earplugs or special earmuffs. Ear protection goes a long way towards preventing your tinnitus from getting worse.
It’s the same mechanism that’s happening in people who feel a phantom limb sensation after losing a limb, explains Susan Shore, PhD, a professor of otolaryngology, molecular physiology, and biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. With tinnitus the loss of hearing causes specific brain neurons to increase their activity as a way of compensating, she explains. “These neurons also synchronize their activity as they would if there were a sound there, but there is no external sound,” she adds.
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.
Counseling helps you learn how to live with your tinnitus. Most counseling programs have an educational component to help you understand what goes on in the brain to cause tinnitus. Some counseling programs also will help you change the way you think about and react to your tinnitus. You might learn some things to do on your own to make the noise less noticeable, to help you relax during the day, or to fall asleep at night.
Hyperactivity and deep brain stimulation. Researchers have observed hyperactivity in neural networks after exposing the ear to intense noise. Understanding specifically where in the brain this hyperactivity begins and how it spreads to other areas could lead to treatments that use deep brain stimulation to calm the neural networks and reduce tinnitus.
Dr. Ben Wedro practices emergency medicine at Gundersen Clinic, a regional trauma center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His background includes undergraduate and medical studies at the University of Alberta, a Family Practice internship at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and residency training in Emergency Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
The results were calculated using a measure called “effect size”, which is a way of quantifying the size of the difference between the two groups. For the difference in quality of life scores between groups, the effect size was calculated to be 0.24. This can be interpreted as a “small” effect. In other words, treatment including CBT gave a small improvement in quality of life compared with usual care.
An assessment of hyperacusis, a frequent accompaniment of tinnitus, may also be made. The measured parameter is Loudness Discomfort Level (LDL) in dB, the subjective level of acute discomfort at specified frequencies over the frequency range of hearing. This defines a dynamic range between the hearing threshold at that frequency and the loudnes discomfort level. A compressed dynamic range over a particular frequency range is associated with subjectve hyperacusis. Normal hearing threshold is generally defined as 0–20 decibels (dB). Normal loudness discomfort levels are 85–90+ dB, with some authorities citing 100 dB. A dynamic range of 55 dB or less is indicative of hyperacusis.
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.
If the cause of your tinnitus is excessive earwax, your doctor will clean out your ears by suction with a small curved instrument called a curette, or gently flush it out with warm water. If you have an ear infection, you may be given prescription ear drops containing hydrocortisone to help relieve the itching and an antibiotic to fight the infection.