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.
In many cases, tinnitus is caused by hyperactivity (or too much activity) in the brain’s auditory cortex. “When there’s damage or a loss of input in the ear [such as hearing loss, head trauma, or a blood vessel problem], the brain tries to turn up certain channels in order to compensate,” Dr. Kilgard explains. When the brain doesn’t get that tuning quite right, the result is tinnitus.
According to the American Tinnitus Association, most cases of tinnitus are caused by hearing loss. Occasionally though, tinnitus is caused by an irritation to the auditory system. Tinnitus can sometimes be a symptom of a problem with the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). If your tinnitus is caused by TMJ, then a dental procedure or realignment of your bite may alleviate the problem.
Research regarding using cognitive behavioral therapy for tinnitus shows that tolerance to tinnitus can be facilitated by “reducing levels of autonomic nervous system arousal, changing the emotional meaning of the tinnitus, and reducing other stresses.” (6) It’s been found that there’s some overlap in anxiety and tinnitus due to an association between subcortical brain networks involved in hearing sounds, attention, distress and memory functions.
However, the multidisciplinary approach based on CBT is not a “cure for tinnitus”, as implied in some papers, but rather a system for managing its symptoms and effects on people’s lives. The differences in outcomes between the treatment and usual care groups were quite small, with the multidisciplinary approach giving a small improvement in quality of life compared with usual care, and moderate improvements in tinnitus severity and impairment. Also, less than 70% of participants completed the trial to 12 months, and this could have affected the reliability of the study’s overall results. Furthermore, as the patients in the study were only followed for 12 months, it is uncertain whether this approach can help in the longer term.
If you develop tinnitus, it's important to see your clinician. She or he will take a medical history, give you a physical examination, and do a series of tests to try to find the source of the problem. She or he will also ask you to describe the noise you're hearing (including its pitch and sound quality, and whether it's constant or periodic, steady or pulsatile) and the times and places in which you hear it. Your clinician will review your medical history, your current and past exposure to noise, and any medications or supplements you're taking. Tinnitus can be a side effect of many medications, especially when taken at higher doses (see "Some drugs that can cause or worsen tinnitus").
Most of the causes of tinnitus alter neurological activity within the auditory cortex, the portion of the brain responsible for hearing. The transmission of sound is interrupted, so some of the neural circuits fail to receive signals. Instead of causing hearing loss, as you might expect due to the lack of stimulation, the neural circuits begin chattering. First, they chatter alone. Then, they become hyperactive and synchronous. When we experience this deviation, our brains attempt to compensate for the change by interpreting the neurological activity as sound. This can resemble ringing, buzzing, hissing, whistling, or roaring, amongst a variety of other noises.
Hyperactivity and deep brain stimulation. Researchers have observed hyperactivity in neural networks after exposing the ear to intense noise. Understanding specifically where in the brain this hyperactivity begins and how it spreads to other areas could lead to treatments that use deep brain stimulation to calm the neural networks and reduce tinnitus.
Loud noise exposure: Being exposed to occupational loud noise on a regular basis from heavy equipment, chain saws or firearms is a common cause of tinnitus. However, even if you don’t work in a noisy environment, you can still suffer the effects of noise exposure by listening to loud music through headphones, attending live music performances frequently and engaging in noisy hobbies.