There are many different conditions and disorders that affect nerve channels leading to the ears, which can cause someone to hear abnormal ringing or other sounds in their ears. These conditions usually cause other symptoms at the same time (such as dizziness, hearing loss, headaches, facial paralysis, nausea and loss of balance), which doctors use as clues to uncover the underlying cause of 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.
To answer your question about NAC (N-acetyl-L-cysteine), I’ve seen little evidence suggesting that is effective for tinnitus. Instead – though the research is very limited – multiple anecdotal reports describe success with the herb ginkgo biloba. Try taking two tablets of standardized extract of ginkgo three times a day with meals (no more than a total dose of 240 mg a day). Ginkgo may work by increasing blood circulation to the head and neck. Give it at least a two-month trial. You might also explore cranial therapy, a gentle manipulative technique performed by osteopathic physicians. This approach seems to take the pressure or irritation off the auditory nerves. If high blood pressure is responsible for your tinnitus, try to get that under control through diet, exercise, and weight loss or medication if necessary.
Most experts refer to tinnitus as the condition that causes ringing in the ears, however other abnormal sounds and sensations can also be attributed to tinnitus. The definition of tinnitus is “the perception of noise or ringing in the ears.” Some also describe this condition as “hearing sounds in the ears when no external sound is present.” Although tinnitus is only a significant problem for about 1 percent to 5 percent of the population, up to 10 percent to 15 percent of all children and adults are believed to experience ringing in the ears at least from time to time.
Your doctor will try to determine what is causing the condition. If it is not due to a medication side effect or a general medical condition (such as high blood pressure), he or she may refer you to an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat doctor) or an audiologist (hearing specialist). It is especially important to see an otolaryngologist if you experience tinnitus in only one ear, tinnitus that sounds like your heartbeat or pulse (pulsatile tinnitus), tinnitus with sudden or fluctuating hearing loss, pressure or fullness in one or both ears, and/or dizziness or balance problems. Unless the cause of the tinnitus is obvious on physical examination, a hearing test is usually required.
Standard masking devices help to mask the sound of tinnitus while you are using them, but they have no long-lasting effects. Modern medical-grade devices use customized sounds tailored specifically to your tinnitus. Unlike regular sound machines, these devices are only worn intermittently. You may experience benefits long after the device is turned off, and over time, you may experience long-term improvement in the perceived loudness of your tinnitus.
Michael Chrostowski, PhD is the founder of Sound Options Tinnitus Treatments Inc. His dedication to improving the lives of tinnitus sufferers drives his vision of providing effective, affordable and accessible treatments for the many tinnitus sufferers he has met throughout his research career. With over 8 years of research in the field of tinnitus and collaborations with leaders in the field, Dr. Chrostowski was able to make use of cutting-edge research to develop software that can customize an effective and personal treatment for tinnitus. Dr. Chrostowski received a BASc in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Toronto and a PhD in neuroscience at McMaster University.
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)
Physical exam: Physical examination will focus on the head and neck, and especially the ears, including the auditory canals and tympanic membranes. Since the sense of hearing is conducted through one of the cranial nerves (the short nerves that lead directly from the brain to the face, head and neck), a careful neurologic exam also may be performed. Weakness or numbness in the face, mouth, and neck may be associated with a tumor or other structural abnormality pressing on a nerve. The healthcare professional may listen to the flow in the carotid arteries in the neck for an abnormal sound (bruit), since carotid artery stenosis (narrowing of the artery) can transmit a sound to the ear that may cause tinnitus.
This study has several strengths. It included a relatively large number of patients, reducing the possibility of bias by “masking” which treatment patients received, classifying participants according to the severity of their tinnitus and using highly standardised interventions. Also, the researchers used established scales to measure the severity of tinnitus and its impact on quality of life.
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.
A diagnosis of tinnitus is based upon identification of characteristic symptoms, a detailed patient history, a thorough clinical evaluation and complete audiologic testing. These steps will help to differentiate rhythmic tinnitus from non-rhythmic tinnitus. It cannot be overemphasized that tinnitus is a symptom of another underlying condition and not a diagnosis in and of itself. Because of the high number of underlying causes of tinnitus, a variety of specialized tests to detect the specific cause may be necessary. Attempting to identify the underlying cause of tinnitus is the first step in evaluating a person with tinnitus.
Being exposed to loud noise on a regular basis from heavy equipment, chain saws or firearms are common causes of hearing loss and tinnitus. Noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus can also be caused by listening to loud music through headphones or attending loud concerts frequently. It is possible to experience short-term tinnitus after seeing a concert, but long-term exposure will cause permanent damage.
Most people who seek medical help for tinnitus experience it as subjective, constant sound like constant ringing in the ears or a buzzing sound in the ear, and most have some degree of hearing loss. Things that cause hearing loss (and tinnitus) include loud noise, medications that damage the nerves in the ear (ototoxic drugs), impacted earwax, middle ear problems (such as infections and vascular tumors), and aging. Tinnitus can also be a symptom of Meniere's disease, a disorder of the balance mechanism in the inner ear.
Hearing loss: Probably the most common cause for tinnitus is hearing loss. As we age, or because of trauma to the ear (through noise, drugs, or chemicals), the portion of the ear that allows us to hear, the cochlea, becomes damaged. Current theories suggest that because the cochlea is no longer sending the normal signals to the brain, the brain becomes confused and essentially develops its own noise to make up for the lack of normal sound signals. This then is interpreted as a sound, tinnitus. This tinnitus can be made worse by anything that makes our hearing worse, such as ear infections or excess wax in the ear.
FACT: Some companies will try to point you to a miraculous tinnitus cure where a few pills will stop all signs of tinnitus. While much research has been done around the effects of medication and vitamin supplements on tinnitus, there is currently no proven tinnitus cure. Only tinnitus management devices and sound therapy have been proven to decrease the effects of tinnitus.
Practice mindfulness meditation. I’ve written about the power of mindfulness mediation to reduce stress and improve sleep. A 2017 study found mindfulness meditation is also effective in helping people better manage tinnitus. Mindfulness meditation involves sitting comfortably, putting your attention on your natural breathing. When your mind wanders—to irritating tinnitus sounds, to worry about sleep, or wherever else it goes, gently return your attention to your breath. Start with a 5-minute session, and as you grow more comfortable with the practice, you can increase the time. You can practice mindfulness meditation anywhere, at any time of day—including in the shower!
Ask your doctor about experimental therapies. No cure for tinnitus has been found but research is ongoing, so you should be open to experimental therapies. Electronic and magnetic stimulation of the brain and nerves might correct the overactive nerve signals that cause tinnitus. These techniques are still in development, so ask your doctor or hearing specialist if trying one might be right for you.
Shelly-Anne Li is the VP of clinical research and operations at Sound Options Tinnitus Treatments Inc. As a research methodology consultant for various projects, she brings expertise in health research methods, as well as experience from conducting multi-site randomized controlled trials, mixed methods studies and qualitative research. Shelly-Anne Li is currently a PhD candidate at University of Toronto, and obtained her MSc (health sciences) from McMaster University.
Meniere’s disease isn’t directly connected to tinnitus, but people with Meniere’s often experience it, at least temporarily. Meniere's disease is an inner ear disease that typically only affects one ear. This disease can cause pressure or pain in the ear, severe cases of dizziness or vertigo and a ringing or roaring tinnitus. While Meniere’s isn’t fully understood, it appears that several relief options for tinnitus can also help with this disease. Patients are often advised to reduce stress and lower their consumption of caffeine and sodium.