Tinnitus is a symptom, not a disease. Most cases are due to damage to the microscopic endings of the sensory nerve in the inner ear, commonly from exposure to loud noise (as from amplified music or gunfire). Other causes include allergy, high or low blood pressure, a tumor, diabetes, thyroid dysfunction, and head or neck injury. In addition, some drugs, including aspirin and other anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, sedatives, and antidepressants can also cause tinnitus. If so, changing drugs or lowering the dosage usually helps.
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.
Tinnitus can arise anywhere along the auditory pathway, from the outer ear through the middle and inner ear to the brain's auditory cortex, where it's thought to be encoded (in a sense, imprinted). One of the most common causes of tinnitus is damage to the hair cells in the cochlea (see "Auditory pathways and tinnitus"). These cells help transform sound waves into nerve signals. If the auditory pathways or circuits in the brain don't receive the signals they're expecting from the cochlea, the brain in effect "turns up the gain" on those pathways in an effort to detect the signal — in much the same way that you turn up the volume on a car radio when you're trying to find a station's signal. The resulting electrical noise takes the form of tinnitus — a sound that is high-pitched if hearing loss is in the high-frequency range and low-pitched if it's in the low-frequency range. This kind of tinnitus resembles phantom limb pain in an amputee — the brain is producing abnormal nerve signals to compensate for missing input.
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Persistent tinnitus may cause anxiety and depression. Tinnitus annoyance is more strongly associated with psychological condition than loudness or frequency range. Psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances and concentration difficulties are common in those with strongly annoying tinnitus. 45% of people with tinnitus have an anxiety disorder at some time in their life.
Static noise is designed to distract you from your tinnitus. By mixing a static sound with the tinnitus noise, this can help to divert your attention away from the tinnitus. Miracle-Ear hearing aids have five different types of pre-set static noise sounds so that together, with your hearing care specialist, you can customize this program to your needs to help you relax without the annoyance of tinnitus.
Pulsatile tinnitus is generally caused by abnormalities or disorders affecting the blood vessels (vascular disorders), especially the blood vessels near or around the ears. Such abnormalities or disorders can cause a change in the blood flow through the affected blood vessels. The blood vessels could be weakened from damage caused by hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis). For example, abnormalities affecting the carotid artery, the main artery serving the brain, can be associated with pulsatile tinnitus. A rare cause of pulsatile tinnitus is a disorder known as fibromuscular dysplasia (FMD), a condition characterized by abnormal development of the arterial wall. When the carotid artery is affected by FMD, pulsatile tinnitus can develop.
There seems to be a two-way-street relationship between tinnitus and sleep problems. The symptoms of tinnitus can interfere with sleeping well—and poor sleep can make tinnitus more aggravating and difficult to manage effectively. In the same study that found a majority of people with tinnitus had a sleep disorder, the scientists also found that the presence of sleep disorders made tinnitus more disruptive.
The diagnosis of tinnitus is usually based on the person's description. A number of questionnaires exist that may help to assess how much tinnitus is interfering with a person's life. The diagnosis is commonly supported by an audiogram and a neurological examination. If certain problems are found, medical imaging, such as with MRI, may be performed. Other tests are suitable when tinnitus occurs with the same rhythm as the heartbeat. Rarely, the sound may be heard by someone else using a stethoscope, in which case it is known as objective tinnitus. Spontaneous otoacoustic emissions, which are sounds produced normally by the inner ear, may also occasionally result in tinnitus.
The treatment involves implanting a small electrode into a person’s neck near the vagus nerve. The patient then listens to specific tones that are paired with small electric pulses sent to the vagus nerve. This vagus nerve stimulation, coupled with the sound-based stimulation of the auditory cortex, can “turn down” the patient’s tinnitus. Though, Kilgard adds, “It’s not 100 percent yet.”
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!
One of the big problems associated with curing tinnitus, experts say, is that it’s really a symptom of multiple conditions, as opposed to being a single condition with a predictable trigger. In fact, more than 200 different conditions — problems ranging from hearing loss to head or neck trauma — have been linked with tinnitus, which makes it a real bear to try to stop. (3)
Experts recommend that patients with severe tinnitus become educated about tinnitus and how they best deal with its symptoms. This can include learning about biofeedback in order to control stress and your reaction to tinnitus sounds, talking with a counselor, or joining a support group. Coping strategies are most useful for managing emotional side effects of tinnitus, such as anxiety, trouble sleeping, lack of focus and depression.
Tinnitus retraining therapy is a form of treatment that tries to retrain the nerve pathways associated with hearing that may allow the brain to get used to the abnormal sounds. Habituation allows the brain to ignore the tinnitus noise signal, and it allows the person to become unaware that it is present unless they specifically concentrate on the noise. This treatment involves counseling and wearing a sound generator. Audiologists and otolaryngologists often work together in offering this treatment.
Another thing that tinnitus and sleep problems share? A tendency among people to brush them off, and try to “tough it out,” rather than addressing their conditions. It’s not worth it, to your health or your quality of life. If you’re having trouble sleeping and you have symptoms that sound like tinnitus, talk with your doctor about both, so you can sleep better—and feel better— soon.
Many people find that tinnitus causes frustration, stress, and even anger. And unfortunately, your exasperation and anxiety can seem to amplify the issue. Learning how to thoroughly relax can help you manage your tinnitus. Deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or music therapy may help in combination with sound therapy. You could also explore relaxing hobbies like gardening, painting, swimming, photography, knitting, reading, cooking, or other physical activities (walking, biking, etc.).
Exposure to loud noise. Loud noises, such as those from heavy equipment, chain saws and firearms, are common sources of noise-related hearing loss. Portable music devices, such as MP3 players or iPods, also can cause noise-related hearing loss if played loudly for long periods. Tinnitus caused by short-term exposure, such as attending a loud concert, usually goes away; both short- and long-term exposure to loud sound can cause permanent damage.