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.
Prevention involves avoiding loud noise. If there is an underlying cause, treating it may lead to improvements. Otherwise, typically, management involves talk therapy. Sound generators or hearing aids may help some. As of 2013, there were no effective medications. It is common, affecting about 10–15% of people. Most, however, tolerate it well, and it is a significant problem in only 1–2% of people. The word tinnitus is from the Latin tinnīre which means "to ring".
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.
Tinnitus is usually described as a ringing in the ears, but it can also sound like clicking, hissing, roaring, or buzzing. Tinnitus involves perceiving sound when no external noise is present. The sound can be very soft or very loud, and high-pitched or low-pitched. Some people hear it in one ear and others hear it in both. People with severe tinnitus may have problems hearing, working, or sleeping.
A disorder of the inner ear, Ménière’s disease typically affects hearing and balance and may cause debilitating vertigo, hearing loss, and tinnitus. People who suffer from Ménière’s disease often report a feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear (it typically affects only one ear). The condition most often impacts people in their 40s and 50s, but it can afflict people of all ages, including children. Although treatments can relieve the symptoms of Ménière’s disease and minimize its long-term influence, it is a chronic condition with no true cure.
Another example of somatic tinnitus is that caused by temperomandibular joint disorder. The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is where the lower jaw connects to the skull, and is located in front of the ears. Damage to the muscles, ligaments, or cartilage in the TMJ can lead to tinnitus symptoms. The TMJ is adjacent to the auditory system and shares some ligaments and nerve connections with structures in the middle ear.
Most tinnitus is subjective, meaning that only you can hear the noise. But sometimes it's objective, meaning that someone else can hear it, too. For example, if you have a heart murmur, you may hear a whooshing sound with every heartbeat; your clinician can also hear that sound through a stethoscope. Some people hear their heartbeat inside the ear — a phenomenon called pulsatile tinnitus. It's more likely to happen in older people, because blood flow tends to be more turbulent in arteries whose walls have stiffened with age. Pulsatile tinnitus may be more noticeable at night, when you're lying in bed and there are fewer external sounds to mask the tinnitus. If you notice any new pulsatile tinnitus, you should consult a clinician, because in rare cases it is a sign of a tumor or blood vessel damage.
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!
For many, tinnitus symptoms come on gradually and eventually go away as the brain and ears adjust. However, for others tinnitus can last for years and cause various complications. A high percentage of people with tinnitus that’s persistent and untreatable go on to also develop anxiety or depression as a result. What types of things can you do to deal with and lower tinnitus symptoms? Tinnitus treatment includes avoiding excessively loud sources of noise pollution, using certain hearing aids, preventing ear infections and avoiding drug use.
Microvascular compression may sometimes cause tinnitus. According to Levine (2006) the quality is similar to a "typewriter", and it is fully suppressed by carbamazepine. It seems to us that response to carbamazepine is not a reliable indicator of microvascular compression as this drug stabilizes nerves and lowers serum sodium. Nevertheless, this quality of tinnitus probably justifies a trial of oxcarbamazine (a less toxic version of carbamazepine).
Tinnitus Retraining Therapy. Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT) combines a wearable device that is individually programmed to mask the specific tonal frequency of that person’s tinnitus, with psychological therapy that teaches a patient to ignore the sounds his tinnitus is creating. I consider it the best of all of the above noise suppression techniques, as it is individually tailored for each person and involves support from a trained psychological therapist. It is also the most expensive and time consuming, but in my medical opinion, the most beneficial of all the noise suppression techniques listed above.
Imagine you’re settling in for a night’s rest. In your quiet bedroom, you’re tune right into those tinnitus noises—and you can’t shake your focus on them. You start to wonder about how you’ll ever fall asleep with these sounds in your ears. You think about the rest you’re missing out on because you’re not already asleep, and you wonder how you’ll have the energy to make it through your day.
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.
To keep the brain activated and aware, Kilgard’s therapy involves stimulating the vagus nerve, which is actually a pair of nerves that runs inside the neck and into the brain. “All the stuff you brains learns about your body — it all comes in through the vagus nerve,” he says. “We trick the brain into thinking it’s learning something important by stimulating this nerve in the neck.”
Most tinnitus is "sensorineural," meaning that it's due to hearing loss at the cochlea or cochlear nerve level. But tinnitus may originate in other places. Our bodies normally produce sounds (called somatic sounds) that we usually don't notice because we are listening to external sounds. Anything that blocks normal hearing can bring somatic sounds to our attention. For example, you may get head noise when earwax blocks the outer ear.
Psychological research has looked at the tinnitus distress reaction (TDR) to account for differences in tinnitus severity. These findings suggest that at the initial perception of tinnitus, conditioning links tinnitus with negative emotions, such as fear and anxiety from unpleasant stimuli at the time. This enhances activity in the limbic system and autonomic nervous system, thus increasing tinnitus awareness and annoyance.
Antidepressants are occasionally associated with tinnitus (Robinson, 2007). For example, Tandon (1987) reported that 1% of those taking imiprimine complained of tinnitus. In a double-blind trial of paroxetine for tinnitus, 3% discontinued due to a perceived worsening of tinnitus (Robinson, 2007). There are case reports concerning tinnitus as a withdrawal symptom from Venlafaxine and sertraline (Robinson, 2007). In our clinical practice, we have occasionally encountered patients reporting worsening of tinnitus with an antidepressant, generally in the SSRI family.
No two patients and no two tinnitus cases are alike. As such, the “best” treatment option is often contingent on an array of factors unique to each patient. Moreover, successful management of tinnitus may require overlapping layers of treatment. ATA recommends that patients work with their healthcare provider(s) to identify and implement the treatment strategy that is best suited to their particular needs.
Tinnitus also could be the result of neural circuits thrown out of balance when damage in the inner ear changes signaling activity in the auditory cortex, the part of the brain that processes sound. Or it could be the result of abnormal interactions between neural circuits. The neural circuits involved in hearing aren’t solely dedicated to processing sound. They also communicate with other parts of the brain, such as the limbic region, which regulates mood and emotion.