Unfortunately that means tinnitus is a very complicated condition that involves several systems of the body. The good news, though, is that as doctors and researchers have developed a better understanding of the mechanisms behind tinnitus, they’ve also been able to develop new and promising treatments that target the brain rather than the ear — and have more of a chance of actually reversing the problem.
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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.
Tinnitus (pronounced tih-NITE-us or TIN-ih-tus) is sound in the head with no external source. For many, it's a ringing sound, while for others, it's whistling, buzzing, chirping, hissing, humming, roaring, or even shrieking. The sound may seem to come from one ear or both, from inside the head, or from a distance. It may be constant or intermittent, steady or pulsating.
An ultrasound is another test that may be used to aid in the diagnosis of tinnitus. An ultrasound uses reflected high-frequency sound waves and their echoes to create images of structures within the body. An ultrasound can reveal how blood flows within vessels, but is only useful for accessible vessels. It is not helpful for blood vessels within the skull.
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.”
Health care professionals who incline to offer patients an option or strategy to deal with tinnitus are confronted with the variability inherent to this disorder.5 The cause of tinnitus can vary, although people who experience tinnitus have usually first developed hearing loss due to ageing or from exposure to loud noise that caused peripheral auditory damage. In fact, the number of tinnitus sufferers that develop the constant ringing due to hearing loss may be even higher than thought, as some tinnitus sufferers only appear to have normal hearing when thresholds at frequencies below 8 kHz are measured. Less frequently, tinnitus may also occur after a head or neck injury, or due to the presence of an acoustic neuroma. Certain medications may also contribute to the development of tinnitus through effects on hair cells in the inner ear or via mechanisms that are not yet well understood.6 This variety in cause has been the first part of the challenge in developing a “cure” or effective treatment for tinnitus. However, even for the largest group of tinnitus sufferers (those who may develop tinnitus due to hearing damage), effective treatments have been hard to come by.
Tinnitus can be triggered by a variety of different causes, and it varies dramatically from person to person. Some of the causes result in permanent tinnitus that may require treatment, while others result in temporary tinnitus that disappears on its own. Common causes of tinnitus include hearing loss, wax buildup, stress, exposure to loud noises, certain disorders, and certain medications. To learn more about the various causes of tinnitus, check out our page What Causes 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.
Subjective tinnitus is the most common type and accounts for 95 percent of cases. Only you can hear it and it’s usually caused by exposure to excessive noise. It can appear suddenly and may last three months (acute) to 12 months (subacute), or longer. Subjective tinnitus is often accompanied by hearing loss due to hair cell nerve damage. The severity of symptoms varies from patient to patient, and largely depends on your reaction to the noise.
We are all different and you may find you prefer one type of relaxation over another. You may find a class that teaches a type you like. However, you may not be able to get to classes or you may just prefer to do something yourself. Using some simple techniques regularly may help you to improve your quality of life and make a real difference to living with tinnitus. It does take practice to develop good relaxation techniques, and what may help one day, may not do so the next – so don’t give up if at first it does not seem to help.
When we hear, sound waves travel through the ear into the cochlea, our hearing organ in the inner ear. The cochlea is lined with thousands of tiny sound-sensing cells called hair cells. These hair cells change the sound waves into electrical signals. The hearing nerve then sends these electrical signals to the hearing part of the brain, which analyses them and recognises them as sound.