Sound waves travel through the ear canal to the middle and inner ear, where hair cells in part of the cochlea help transform sound waves into electrical signals that then travel to the brain's auditory cortex via the auditory nerve. When hair cells are damaged — by loud noise or ototoxic drugs, for example — the circuits in the brain don't receive the signals they're expecting. This stimulates abnormal activity in the neurons, which results in the illusion of sound, or tinnitus.
Imagine you’re settling in for a night’s rest. In your quiet bedroom, you’re tune right into those tinnitus noises—and you can’t shake your focus on them. You start to wonder about how you’ll ever fall asleep with these sounds in your ears. You think about the rest you’re missing out on because you’re not already asleep, and you wonder how you’ll have the energy to make it through your day.
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.
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.
But it’s still a significant improvement. And Kilgard says he and others are working to make the treatment even more effective. He suspects this type of therapy is not too far off from being available to patients outside of research studies. “It’s in the late stages of development,” he says. “It could be available to the public in as little as a year or two.”
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.
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.
When TRT was developed in the 1980s by neuroscientist Dr. Pawel Jastreboff (now at Emory University in Atlanta), it was designed to be administered according to a strict protocol. Today, the term TRT is being used to describe modified versions of this therapy, and the variations make accurate assessment of its effectiveness difficult. Individual studies have reported improvements in as many as 80% of patients with high-pitched tinnitus. In a Cochrane review of the one randomized trial that followed Jastreboff's protocol and met the organization's standards, TRT was much more effective in reducing tinnitus severity and disability than a technique called masking (see below).
Prevention involves avoiding loud noise. If there is an underlying cause, treating it may lead to improvements. Otherwise, typically, management involves talk therapy. Sound generators or hearing aids may help some. As of 2013, there were no effective medications. It is common, affecting about 10–15% of people. Most, however, tolerate it well, and it is a significant problem in only 1–2% of people. The word tinnitus is from the Latin tinnīre which means "to ring".
FACT: Many people with tinnitus will also have a hearing loss. In fact, a recent French study showed that of 123 people with tinnitus surveyed only one did not have hearing loss. The British Tinnitus Association estimates that 90 percent of people with tinnitus also have a hearing loss. Moreover, research says that those who don’t may have a “hidden hearing loss.”
Medication. Some medications are known to be ototoxic while others list tinnitus as a side effect without causing permanent damage to the ear structures. New medications come out so often that it is difficult to maintain an up to date listing; another option, if you are experiencing tinnitus and are curious if it could be your medication, is to talk to your pharmacist or look up your specific prescriptions online through a website such as www.drugs.com. You should never stop a medication without consulting with your physician, even if you think it may be contributing to your 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.
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.
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).