If the source of the problem remains unclear, you may be sent to an otologist or an otolaryngologist (both ear specialists) or an audiologist (a hearing specialist) for hearing and nerve tests. As part of your examination, you may be given a hearing test called an audiogram. An imaging technique, such as an MRI or a CT scan, may also be recommended to reveal any structural problem.
Since most persons with tinnitus also have hearing loss, a pure tone hearing test resulting in an audiogram may help diagnose a cause, though some persons with tinnitus do not have hearing loss. An audiogram may also facilitate fitting of a hearing aid in those cases where hearing loss is significant. The pitch of tinnitus is often in the range of the hearing loss.
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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.
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
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.
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.
John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.
Schecklmann et al (2014) suggested that tinnitus is associated with alterations in motor cortex excitability, by pooling several studies, and reported that there are differences in intracortical inhibition, intra-cortical facilitation, and cortical silent period. We doubt that this means that motor cortex excitability causes tinnitus, but rather we suspect that these findings reflect features of brain organization that may predispose certain persons to develop tinnitus over someone else.
Between 2007 and 2011, the researchers recruited 492 Dutch adults who had been diagnosed with tinnitus. The patients had to fulfil several criteria, including having no underlying disease that was causing their tinnitus, no other health issues that precluded their participation, and to have received no treatment for their tinnitus in the five previous years. Some 66% of adults originally screened for the study participated after screening.
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.
Masking Devices. Similar to the white noise machines listed above, there are now masking devices that can be worn in the ear, just like a hearing aid, that do almost the same thing. They produce low-level white noise that can suppresses your tinnitus symptoms by training your brain to focus on them instead of the ringing in your ears. These are perfect if you can’t always have a white noise machine running near you.
Tinnitus is not a disease in and of itself, but rather a symptom of some other underlying health condition. In most cases, tinnitus is a sensorineural reaction in the brain to damage in the ear and auditory system. While tinnitus is often associated with hearing loss, there are roughly 200 different health disorders that can generate tinnitus as a symptom. Below is a list of some of the most commonly reported catalysts for tinnitus.
Noise-induced hearing loss - Exposure to loud noises, either in a single traumatic experience or over time, can damage the auditory system and result in hearing loss and sometimes tinnitus as well. Traumatic noise exposure can happen at work (e.g. loud machinery), at play (e.g. loud sporting events, concerts, recreational activities), and/or by accident (e.g. a backfiring engine.) Noise induced hearing loss is sometimes unilateral (one ear only) and typically causes patients to lose hearing around the frequency of the triggering sound trauma.
CBT could potentially help people with tinnitus deal with fears that their tinnitus might be caused by brain damage or might lead to deafness. During CBT, they might learn that the condition is common and that it is not associated with brain damage or deafness. They might also be exposed to the sound in a safe environment, so that it has less of an impact on their daily life. CBT also involves techniques such as applied relaxation and mindfulness training.
The researchers paired electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve — a large nerve that runs from the head to the abdomen — with the playing of a tone. Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is known to release chemicals that encourage changes in the brain. This technique, the scientists reasoned, might induce brain cells (neurons) to tune to frequencies other than the tinnitus one. For 20 days, 300 times a day, they played a high-pitched tone to 8 rats during VNS.
There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that some tinnitus is a consequence of neuroplastic alterations in the central auditory pathway. These alterations are assumed to result from a disturbed sensory input, caused by hearing loss. Hearing loss could indeed cause a homeostatic response of neurons in the central auditory system, and therefore cause tinnitus.
Exposure to loud noise: Loud noise exposure is a very common cause of tinnitus today, and it often damages hearing as well. Unfortunately, many people are unconcerned about the harmful effects of excessively loud noise from firearms, high intensity music, or other sources. Twenty-six million American adults have suffered noise-induced hearing loss, according to the NIDCD.
Currently there is no cure for most cases of tinnitus. Depending on the type of tinnitus, symptoms will tend to come and go over time. Stress level, diet, and exposure to noise can worsen tinnitus. Many people find their tinnitus annoying but can learn to adapt without difficulty. It is likely that if you have had tinnitus, you will have it again in the future.
Atherosclerosis. With age and buildup of cholesterol and other deposits, major blood vessels close to your middle and inner ear lose some of their elasticity — the ability to flex or expand slightly with each heartbeat. That causes blood flow to become more forceful, making it easier for your ear to detect the beats. You can generally hear this type of tinnitus in both ears.