Ringing-in-the-ears or a fullness-of-the-head sensation are the most common symptoms of tinnitus. While ringing is the most common experience, the noise can also sound like a buzzing, hissing or whizzing sound. It can range from a low pitch to a high pitch and may be soft or loud at times. For some, tinnitus seems to get louder at night, just before sleep when no other sounds are competing with it. Tinnitus can remain constant or come and go intermittently. In severe cases, the ringing in the ears is loud enough to interfere with work or daily activity, whereas those with mild tinnitus can experience soft ringing that is no more than a minor annoyance.
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.
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.
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.
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.
According to the American Tinnitus Association, this complex audiological and neurological condition is experienced by nearly 50 million Americans. (2) Older adults, men, people who smoke or use drugs, and those with a history of ear infections or cardiovascular disease have the highest risk for developing tinnitus. Most experts believe that it’s not a disorder itself, but rather one symptom of another underlying disorder that affects auditory sensations and nerves near the ears. However, there are tinnitus treatment options out there to treat those symptoms.
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.
Some persons with severe TMJ (temporomandibular joint) arthritis have severe tinnitus. Generally these persons say that there is a "screeching" sound. This is another somatic tinnitus. TMJ is extremely common -- about 25% of the population. The exact prevalence of TMJ associated tinnitus is not established, but presumably it is rather high too. Having TMJ increases the odds that you have tinnitus too, by about a factor of 1.6-3.22 (Park and Moon, 2014; Lee et al, 2016). This is the a large risk factor for tinnitus, similar to the risk from hearing loss (see table above).
Ear canal obstructions, infections, injuries or surgeries. This can include ossicle dislocation within the ear that affects hearing or recurring ear infections (like swimmer’s ear) either in the outside or inside of the ear canal (otitis media or otitis externa). Other ear disorders tied to tinnitus include otosclerosis (causes changes to the bones inside the ears), tympanic membrane perforation or labrynthitis (chronic infections or viruses that attack tissue in the ears).
Exposure to Loud Noise: Exposure to loud or excessive noise can damage or destroy hair cells (cilia) in the inner ear. Because the hair cells cannot be renewed or replaced, this can lead to permanent hearing loss and/or tinnitus. Continued exposure can worsen these conditions, so people who work in loud environments should always wear ear protection. This includes musicians, air traffic controllers, construction workers, military personnel, and first responders. In addition, consider lowering the volume on your iPod and wearing earplugs at loud concerts.
Tinnitus can occur as a sleep disorder - -this is called the "exploding head syndrome". This most often occurs while falling asleep or waking up. It is a tremendously loud noise. Some theorize that this syndrome is due to a brief seizure in auditory cortex. It is not dangerous.(Green 2001; Palikh and Vaughn 2010). Logically, anticonvulsants might be useful for treatment.
Tinnitus is commonly accompanied by hearing loss, and roughly 90% of persons with chronic tinnitus have some form of hearing loss (Davis and Rafaie, 2000; Lockwood et al, 2002). On the other hand, only about 30-40% of persons with hearing loss develop tinnitus. According to Park and Moon (2004), hearing impairment roughly doubles the odds of having tinnitus, and triples the odds of having annoying tinnitus.
Until recently, most tinnitus patients had little reason to believe doctors would ever be able to completely cure or reverse the affliction. Drug therapies had consistently failed, and so had more invasive procedures — including some surgeries to remove the auditory nerve that transmits sound from the ear to the brain, according to past research. (1,2)
People with warning signs should see a doctor right away. People without warning signs in whom tinnitus recently developed should call their doctor, as should people with pulsatile tinnitus. Most people with tinnitus and no warning signs have had tinnitus for a long time. They can discuss the matter with their doctor and be seen at a mutually convenient time.
In persons with pulsatile tinnitus, additional tests maybe proposed to study the blood vessels and to check the pressure inside the head. Gentle pressure on the neck can be performed to block the jugular vein but not the carotid artery. The Valsalva maneuver reduces venous return by increasing intrathoracic pressure. If there is a venous hum, this usually abates or improves markedly. If the pulsation is arterial, these tests have no effect.
Supporting the idea that central reorganization is overestimated as "the" cause of tinnitus, a recent study by Wineland et al showed no changes in central connectivity of auditory cortex or other key cortical regions (Wineland et al, 2012). Considering other parts of the brain, Ueyama et al (2013) reported that there was increased fMRI activity in the bilateral rectus gyri, as well as cingulate gyri correlating with distress. Loudness was correlated with values in the thalamus, bilateral hippocampus and left caudate. In other words, the changes in the brain associated with tinnitus seem to be associated with emotional reaction (e.g. cingulate), and input systems (e.g. thalamus). There are a few areas whose role is not so obvious (e.g. caudate). This makes a more sense than the Wineland result, but of course, they were measuring different things. MRI studies related to audition or dizziness must be interpreted with great caution as the magnetic field of the MRI stimulates the inner ear, and because MRI scanners are noisy.
A common cause of tinnitus is inner ear hair cell damage. Tiny, delicate hairs in your inner ear move in relation to the pressure of sound waves. This triggers 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.