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
While tinnitus is as varied as its causes, it can be grouped into two categories: tonal and non-tonal. Tonal tinnitus is more common and describes the perception of a near-continuous sound or overlapping sounds with a well-defined frequency (e.g., whistling, ringing, buzzing). Non-tonal forms of tinnitus include humming, clicking, crackling, and rumbling.
High-pitched ringing. Exposure to a very loud noise or a blow to the ear can cause a high-pitched ringing or buzzing that usually goes away after a few hours. However, if there's hearing loss as well, tinnitus may be permanent. Long-term noise exposure, age-related hearing loss or medications can cause a continuous, high-pitched ringing in both ears. Acoustic neuroma can cause continuous, high-pitched ringing in one ear.
Often people bring in very long lists of medications that have been reported, once or twice, to be associated with tinnitus. This unfortunate behavior makes it very hard to care for these patients -- as it puts one into an impossible situation where the patient is in great distress but is also unwilling to attempt any treatment. Specialists who care for patients with ear disease, usually know very well which drugs are problems (such as those noted above), and which ones are nearly always safe.
Acoustic neural stimulation is a relatively new technique for people whose tinnitus is very loud or won’t go away. It uses a palm-sized device and headphones to deliver a broadband acoustic signal embedded in music. The treatment helps stimulate change in the neural circuits in the brain, which eventually desensitizes you to the tinnitus. The device has been shown to be effective in reducing or eliminating tinnitus in a significant number of study volunteers.
Due to the large variability in tinnitus, a one-size-fits-all approach (as offered by maskers) will have limited benefits. Indeed, there is evidence that being able to customize a sound therapy (e.g., using the tinnitus pitch or hearing loss profile), will provide greater benefits7,8 for tinnitus sufferers. Given the evidence supporting this line of thinking and the limitations of existing tinnitus management options, we were driven to develop and rigorously test an enjoyable, personalized sound therapy that has potential to provide lasting relief to tinnitus sufferers.
To understand what causes tinnitus, you first need to understand what tinnitus is. Tinnitus is, very simply, unexplainable noises you hear in your head when there is no actual sound present. A person with tinnitus will often hear a whistling, humming, buzzing, whooshing, clicking or ringing in their ears, even when there is nothing in the area that is emitting that particular sound. It may be intermittent or last only a short time or never seem to stop.
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.
Acoustic Neural Stimulation. This relatively new treatment has shown to be effective in reducing, and in some cases eliminating, symptoms in patients whose tinnitus just won’t go away or is very loud. The treatment utilizes a device small enough to fit into the palm of your hand that delivers a broadband acoustical signal embedded in special music you can listen to via headphones. The treatment eventually desensitizes you to the ringing in your ears by stimulating changes in the neural circuits in your brain.
According to ATA, The American Tinnitus Association, 45 million Americans are struggling with tinnitus. In Germany the “Deutsche Tinnitus-Liga” estimates that 19 million Germans have experienced tinnitus, and that 2,7 million Germans have persistent tinnitus, of which 1 million have very severe tinnitus. The British Tinnitus Association estimates that 10% of the UK population suffers from tinnitus. Read more about the prevalence of tinnitus.
When tinnitus is unexpected and unwelcomed, it can lead to a negative reaction to the tinnitus. This can create a vicious cycle. When tinnitus is perceived, it can prompt emotions, including frustration, fear, unhappiness, etc. These can, in turn, cause physical reactions such as anxiety and stress. This reinforces the tinnitus and perpetuates the cycle.
Treatment of the underlying primary disorder may help to improve or cure rhythmic tinnitus. For example, the treatment of blood vessel disorders (e.g. dural arteriovenous shunts) can include certain medications or surgery. A surgical procedure known as sinus wall reconstruction can successfully treat pulsatile tinnitus due to sigmoid sinus diverticulum and dehiscence. In fact, most individuals have experienced complete resolution of their tinnitus following this surgery. Surgery may also be necessary for rare cases of pulsatile tinnitus caused by a tumor.
Loud noise is the leading cause of damage to the inner ear. Most patients with noise trauma describe a whistling tinnitus (Nicholas-Puel et al,. 2002). In a large study of tinnitus, avoidance of occupational noise was one of two factors most important in preventing tinnitus (Sindhusake et al. 2003). The other important factor was the rapidity of treating ear infections.
Individuals with tinnitus describe perceiving a wide variety of sounds including ringing, clicking, hissing, humming, chirping, buzzing, whistling, whooshing, roaring, and/or whirling. These sounds may be present at all times, or they may come and go. The volume, pitch or quality of tinnitus sounds can fluctuate as well. Some people report that their tinnitus is most obvious when outside sounds are low (i.e. during the night). Other individuals describe their tinnitus as loud even in the presence of external sounds or noise, and some describe it as exacerbated by sounds. Tinnitus can affect one ear or both ears. It can also sound like it is inside the head and not in the ears at all.
Removing Excess Earwax. There is a small chance that your tinnitus is being caused by an excess build up of ear wax that is blocking the ear canal. This is especially common in older patients who have a lot of ear hair that ear wax has been building up on over the years. By removing both the excess hair and ear wax, especially if it’s in contact with your ear drum, your tinnitus can improve.
Addressing Any TMJ Disorders. A small percentage of people will experience tinnitus if they are having problems with their temporomandibular joint. This joint is located in front of the ears, on each side of the head, where the lower jawbone meets the skull. In these rare cases, a dental treatment or bite realignment may relieve you of the ringing you hear in your ears.
Some people experience a sound that beats in time with their pulse, known as pulsatile tinnitus or vascular tinnitus. Pulsatile tinnitus is usually objective in nature, resulting from altered blood flow, increased blood turbulence near the ear, such as from atherosclerosis or venous hum, but it can also arise as a subjective phenomenon from an increased awareness of blood flow in the ear. Rarely, pulsatile tinnitus may be a symptom of potentially life-threatening conditions such as carotid artery aneurysm or carotid artery dissection. Pulsatile tinnitus may also indicate vasculitis, or more specifically, giant cell arteritis. Pulsatile tinnitus may also be an indication of idiopathic intracranial hypertension. Pulsatile tinnitus can be a symptom of intracranial vascular abnormalities and should be evaluated for irregular noises of blood flow (bruits).
Age-Related Hearing Loss: Also known as presbycusis, age-related hearing loss results from the cumulative effect of aging on hearing. This permanent, progressive, and sensorineural condition is most pronounced at higher frequencies. It commonly impacts people over the age of 50, as all people begin to lose approximately 0.5% of the inner ear’s hair cells annually starting at age 40.
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.