Tinnitus – a sound in the head with no external source – is not a disease; it is a symptom that can be triggered by a variety of different health conditions. So what causes tinnitus? Common sources include hearing loss, ear wax buildup, ototoxic medications, and ear bone changes. No matter what the cause, the condition interrupts the transmission of sound from the ear to the brain. Some part of the hearing system is involved as well, whether the outer, middle, or inner ear.
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.
Subjective tinnitus is the most frequent type of tinnitus. It can have many possible causes, but most commonly it results from hearing loss. When the tinnitus is caused by disorders of the inner ear or auditory nerve it is called otic (from the Greek word for ear). These otological or neurological conditions include those triggered by infections or drugs. A frequent cause is noise exposure that damages hair cells in the inner ear.
MRI (or magnetic resonance imaging) scan is a radiology technique which uses magnetism, radio waves, and a computer to produce images of body structures. MRI scanning is painless and does not involve X-ray radiation. Patients with heart pacemakers, metal implants, or metal chips or clips in or around the eyes cannot be scanned with MRI because of the effect of the magnet.
Hearing (audiological) exam. As part of the test, you'll sit in a soundproof room wearing earphones through which will be played specific sounds into one ear at a time. You'll indicate when you can hear the sound, and your results are compared with results considered normal for your age. This can help rule out or identify possible causes of tinnitus.
Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). This technique, which uses a small device placed on the scalp to generate short magnetic pulses, is already being used to normalize electrical activity in the brains of people with epilepsy. Preliminary trials of rTMS in humans, funded by the NIDCD, are helping researchers pinpoint the best places in the brain to stimulate in order to suppress tinnitus. Researchers are also looking for ways to identify which people are most likely to respond well to stimulation devices.
Hearing loss often accompanies tinnitus, so a hearing aid can hit two birds with one stone. In addition to amplifying sound, the device can camouflage the ringing in your ears by boosting other soft sounds in your environment. If you experience hearing loss in addition to your tinnitus, discuss the potential benefits of a hearing aid that may assist with both conditions at the same time.
The accepted definition of chronic tinnitus, as compared to normal ear noise experience, is five minutes of ear noise occurring at least twice a week. However, people with chronic tinnitus often experience the noise more frequently than this and can experience it continuously or regularly, such as during the night when there is less environmental noise to mask the sound.
Tinnitus sufferers most often cite stress as the cause of their condition. While it’s true noises are perceived more acutely when you are tense, there is no scientific basis for saying stress causes tinnitus. But the reverse is definitely true — hearing a constant noise in your ears can certainly cause stress and anxiety, and even lead to depression in some cases.
Tinnitus (pronounced tin-NY-tus or TIN-u-tus) is not a disease. It is a symptom that something is wrong in the auditory system, which includes the ear, the auditory nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain, and the parts of the brain that process sound. Something as simple as a piece of earwax blocking the ear canal can cause tinnitus. But it can also be the result of a number of health conditions, such as:
Ototoxic drugs can also cause subjective tinnitus, as they may cause hearing loss, or increase the damage done by exposure to loud noise. Those damages can occur even at doses that are not considered ototoxic. Over 260 medications have been reported to cause tinnitus as a side effect. In many cases, however, no underlying cause could be identified.
Tinnitus affects every layer of society, and there has been increasing support for awareness. Recently, musicians who are affected by tinnitus have come together to create awareness for the disorder. Artists including Chris Martin of Coldplay and Black Eyed Peas have created a compilation album to help raise funds towards finding a cure for tinnitus. In the United States, the Department of Defense has invested millions of dollars into investigations of tinnitus sound therapies. In addition, the American Tinnitus Association makes efforts to lobby the US government to provide support for tinnitus sufferers.
It is possible that the most common cause of pulsatile tinnitus is sigmoid sinus diverticulum and dehiscence, which can be collectively referred to as sinus wall abnormalities or SSWA. The sigmoid sinus is a blood carrying channel on the side of the brain that receives blood from veins within the brain. The blood eventually exits through the internal jugular vein. Sigmoid sinus diverticulum refers to the formation of small sac-like pouches (diverticula) that protrude through the wall of the sigmoid sinus into the mastoid bone behind the ear. Dehiscence refers to absence of part of the bone that surrounds the sigmoid sinus in the mastoid. It is unknown whether these conditions represent different parts of one disease process or spectrum, or whether they are two distinct conditions. These abnormalities cause pressure, blood flow, and noise changes within the sigmoid sinus, which ultimately results in pulsatile tinnitus. Narrowing of the blood vessel that leads into the sigmoid sinus, known as the transverse sinus, has also been associated with pulsatile tinnitus.
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.
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 the cause of your tinnitus is excessive earwax, your doctor will clean out your ears by suction with a small curved instrument called a curette, or gently flush it out with warm water. If you have an ear infection, you may be given prescription ear drops containing hydrocortisone to help relieve the itching and an antibiotic to fight the infection.