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.
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.
As an initial test of our treatment, we first conducted a small pilot study to see if there were measurable benefits within 3 to 6 months of using this therapy. While we did not inform participants of whether they would receive a treatment or unaltered music, every participant in fact received a treatment. Participants reported a drop in scores on the Tinnitus Handicap Inventory (THI) within 3 months of using their personalized sound therapy for about 2 hours a day. THI is a psychometrically robust and validated questionnaire that assesses the impact of tinnitus on daily living and the degree of distress suffered by the tinnitus patient. Furthermore, we saw increased benefits after 6 months of treatment use (Figure 1). This data suggested that our treatment may be engaging brain plasticity in a positive manner, thereby gradually reducing tinnitus over time. Armed with this information, we designed a more rigorous trial that is very uncommon among research in tinnitus therapies.
A large, 2014 study of almost 14,000 people found obstructive sleep apnea was linked to significantly higher rates of hearing impairment and hearing loss. Scientists think one reason for this is changes to blood flow to the ear that result in inflammation. (We know that sleep apnea causes changes to circulation and weakens blood flow to some areas of the body, including the brain.) A related factor? People with sleep apnea are at greater risk for high blood pressure, and high blood pressure can exacerbate hearing loss, according to research.
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.
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.
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.
Tinnitus can be caused by a variety of less common underlying conditions or injuries. If you have tinnitus, start your treatment path by seeking out a hearing healthcare professional who specializes in tinnitus diagnostics so they can help identify the underlying cause. If the common causes for tinnitus are ruled out, the practitioner will refer you to another specialist for further evaluation. Listed below are related medical specialties who might be able to help you determine the cause of your tinnitus.
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 can be extremely frustrating and can leave you feeling overwhelmed and unsure about your next steps. Remember that you are not alone - tinnitus, while not well-understood, is common. Make an appointment with a hearing care professional near you, preferably one who specializes in tinnitus treatment. Be prepared to discuss your symptoms in detail so you can get relief and regain your quality of life.
If your doctor cannot find any medical condition responsible for your tinnitus, you may be referred to an otolaryngologist (commonly called an ear, nose, and throat doctor, or an ENT). The ENT will physically examine your head, neck, and ears and test your hearing to determine whether you have any hearing loss along with the tinnitus. You might also be referred to an audiologist who can also measure your hearing and evaluate your tinnitus.
Ear canal obstructions, infections, injuries or surgeries. This can include ossicle dislocation within the ear that affects hearing or recurring ear infections (like swimmer’s ear) either in the outside or inside of the ear canal (otitis media or otitis externa). Other ear disorders tied to tinnitus include otosclerosis (causes changes to the bones inside the ears), tympanic membrane perforation or labrynthitis (chronic infections or viruses that attack tissue in the ears).
White Noise Machines. These devices do a great job of simulating the sound of everything from ocean waves, to rain, to a thunder storm, to a crackling fire to an oscillating fan to just plain old static. The result is that your brain focuses on the sounds around you instead of the ringing in your head. You can even download apps on your iPhone that do the same thing so that you can always have a noise machine with you wherever you go. The constant background noise can not only bring back nostalgic feelings of joy, if you used to site around a crackling fire on holidays with your family, but also allow you to forget about your tinnitus.
If you have tinnitus, you might be feeling frustrated and helpless, but there is hope! The first step is to consult a hearing care professional at one of our consumer-reviewed clinics. There are also audiologists who specialize in managing tinnitus and many non-medical ways to help you regain your quality of life. Learn more through the links here and, when you’re ready, let us help you connect with a professional in your area.