While tinnitus is as varied as its causes, it can be grouped into two categories: tonal and non-tonal. Tonal tinnitus is more common and describes the perception of a near-continuous sound or overlapping sounds with a well-defined frequency (e.g., whistling, ringing, buzzing). Non-tonal forms of tinnitus include humming, clicking, crackling, and rumbling.
Tinnitus is usually described as a ringing in the ears, but it can also sound like clicking, hissing, roaring, or buzzing. Tinnitus involves perceiving sound when no external noise is present. The sound can be very soft or very loud, and high-pitched or low-pitched. Some people hear it in one ear and others hear it in both. People with severe tinnitus may have problems hearing, working, or sleeping.
Take medication for a thyroid disorder, if necessary. Tinnitus can be related to both hyperthyroidism, or an overactive thyroid, and hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid. Your doctor can check for swelling or lumps in your thyroid gland, which is in your throat, and order blood screens to test its function. If they find an issue, they’ll prescribe medication to regulate your thyroid hormone levels.
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.
Traumatic brain injury, caused by concussive shock, can damage the brain’s auditory processing areas and generate tinnitus symptoms. TBI is one of the major catalysts for tinnitus in military and veteran populations. Nearly 60% of all tinnitus cases diagnosed by the U.S. Veterans Administration are attributable to mild-to-severe traumatic brain injuries.
This well-designed study found that using CBT alongside elements of standard therapy can help patients with tinnitus of varying severity. However, the differences in outcomes between the two groups were quite small, and this technique can only help manage tinnitus rather than curing it, as some papers implied. Also, the patients in the study were followed for only 12 months, so it is unclear whether this approach can help in the longer term.
Some instances of tinnitus are caused by infections or blockages in the ear, and the tinnitus can disappear once the underlying cause is treated. Frequently, however, tinnitus continues after the underlying condition is treated. In such a case, other therapies -- both conventional and alternative -- may bring significant relief by either decreasing or covering up the unwanted sound.
But one of the awesome powers of the human brain is its adaptability. “It can learn and reorganize itself every time you practice something new,” Kilgard says. His research, including a study published in February 2014 in the journal Neuromodulation, has shown this adaptability may be key to helping the brain “turn down” the hyperactivity that can lead to tinnitus, he says. (4)
Patulous Eustachian tubes can be associated with tinnitus. The Eustachian tube is a small canal that connects the middle ear to the back of the nose and upper throat. The Eustachian tube normally remains closed. In individuals with a patulous Eustachian tube, the tube is abnormally open. Consequently, talking, chewing, swallowing and other similar actions can cause vibrations directly onto the ear drum. For example, affected individuals may hear blowing sounds that are synchronized with breathing.
Like Shore and Kilgard’s work, most of the promising research on tinnitus has to do with stimulating or altering the brain’s hyperactivity in ways that reduce tinnitus. Some studies have shown electromagnetic brain stimulation — using either invasive or noninvasive techniques, including procedures that involve surgically implanted electrodes or scalp electrodes — may help reverse a patient’s tinnitus. (6) While none of these treatment options are currently available, all have shown some success in treating the condition.
The important thing to remember about tinnitus is that the brain’s response to these random electrical signals determines whether or not a person is annoyed by their tinnitus or not. Magnetoencephalography (MEG, for short) studies have been used to study tinnitus and the brain. MEG takes advantage of the fact that every time neurons send each other signals, their electric current creates a tiny magnetic field. MEG allows scientists to detect such changing patterns of activity in the brain 100 times per second. These studies indicated tinnitus affects the entire brain and helps with understanding why certain therapies are more effective than others.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT uses techniques such as cognitive restructuring and relaxation to change the way patients think about and respond to tinnitus. Patients usually keep a diary and perform "homework" to help build their coping skills. Therapy is generally short-term — for example, weekly sessions for two to six months. A 2010 review of six studies by the Cochrane Collaboration (an international group of health authorities who evaluate randomized trials) found that after CBT, the sound was no less loud, but it was significantly less bothersome, and patients' quality of life improved.
Masking. Masking devices, worn like hearing aids, generate low-level white noise (a high-pitched hiss, for example) that can reduce the perception of tinnitus and sometimes also produce residual inhibition — less noticeable tinnitus for a short time after the masker is turned off. A specialized device isn't always necessary for masking; often, playing music or having a radio, fan, or white-noise machine on in the background is enough. Although there's not enough evidence from randomized trials to draw any conclusions about the effectiveness of masking, hearing experts often recommend a trial of simple masking strategies (such as setting a radio at low volume between stations) before they turn to more expensive options.