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.
Noise exposure. Exposure to loud noises can damage the outer hair cells, which are part of the inner ear. These hair cells do not grow back once they are damaged. Even short exposure to very loud sounds, such as gunfire, can be damaging to the ears and cause permanent hearing loss. Long periods of exposure to moderately loud sounds, such as factory noise or music played through earphones, can result in just as much damage to the inner ear, with permanent hearing loss and tinnitus. Listening to moderately loud sounds for hours at a young age carries a high risk of developing hearing loss and tinnitus later in life.
The important thing to remember about tinnitus is that the brain’s response to these random electrical signals determines whether or not a person is annoyed by their tinnitus or not. Magnetoencephalography (MEG, for short) studies have been used to study tinnitus and the brain. MEG takes advantage of the fact that every time neurons send each other signals, their electric current creates a tiny magnetic field. MEG allows scientists to detect such changing patterns of activity in the brain 100 times per second. These studies indicated tinnitus affects the entire brain and helps with understanding why certain therapies are more effective than others.
Tinnitus is associated with a high level of emotional stress. Depression, anxiety, and insomnia are not uncommon in people with tinnitus. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that helps people with tinnitus learn to live with their condition. Rather than reducing the sound itself, CBT teaches you how to accept it. The goal is to improve your quality of life and prevent tinnitus from driving you crazy.
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.”
It is very well accepted that tinnitus often is "centralized" -- while it is usually initiated with an inner ear event, persistent tinnitus is associated with changes in central auditory processing (Adjamian et al, 2009). Sometimes this idea is used to put forth a "therapeutic nihilism" -- suggesting that fixing the "cause" -- i.e. inner ear disorder -- will not make the tinnitus go away. This to us seems overly simplistic -- while it is clear that the central nervous system participates in perception of sounds, and thus must be a participant in the "tinnitus" process, we think that it is implausible that in most cases that there is not an underlying "driver" for persistent tinnitus.
Why is tinnitus so disruptive to sleep? Often, it’s because tinnitus sounds become more apparent at night, in a quiet bedroom. The noises of daily life can help minimize the aggravation and disruptiveness of tinnitus sounds. But if your bedroom is too quiet, you may perceive those sounds more strongly when you try to fall asleep—and not be able to drift off easily.
This content is strictly the opinion of Dr. Josh Axe and is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of medical advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Axe nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement or lifestyle program.
Don’t ignore ear pain. Pain or discomfort in your ear can be a sign of conditions associated with tinnitus, including ear infections and earwax buildup. These conditions, and the discomfort they cause, can also interfere with sleep. Whether your ear pain is sharp or dull, constant or intermittent, accompanied by itching or not, take these symptoms to your doctor.
Tinnitus is not a disease — it’s a symptom. It’s a sign that something is wrong with your auditory system, which includes your ear, the auditory nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain, and the parts of the brain that process sound. There are a variety of different conditions that can cause tinnitus. One of the most common is noise-induced hearing loss.
Though the exact cause of tinnitus — as in the specific mechanism that creates these phantom sounds in some people — remains unknown, contributing factors and triggers have been identified. Excessive exposure to loud noise is often a factor because of the damage done to your auditory system. Tinnitus may also result from jaw-joint dysfunction (e.g., teeth grinding, temporomandibular joint disorder) or chronic neck muscle strain.
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.
Although mitochondrial DNA variants are thought to predispose to hearing loss, a study of polish individuals by Lechowicz et al, reported that "there are no statistically significant differences in the prevalence of tinnitus and its characteristic features between HL patients with known HL mtDNA variants and the general Polish population." This would argue against mitochondrial DNA variants as a cause of tinnitus, but the situation might be different in other ethnic groups.
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.
The researchers next tested whether tinnitus could be reversed in noise-exposed rats. The animals received VNS paired with various tones other than the tinnitus frequency 300 times a day for about 3 weeks. Rats that received the treatment showed behavioral changes indicating that the ringing had stopped. Neural responses in the brain's auditory cortex returned to their normal levels as well, indicating that the tinnitus had disappeared.
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.