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.
Almost every ENT, audiology practice, and hearing aid dispenser who claims to offer tinnitus treatment only offers one solution: hearing aids. While amplification may help some, only 50% of people living with tinnitus experience hearing loss that affects their understanding of speech, which means hearing aids are ineffective. At Sound Relief, we offer only evidence-based options like sound therapy and have seen countless patients experience life-changing results.
Even with all of these associated conditions and causes, some people develop tinnitus for no obvious reason. Most of the time, tinnitus isn’t a sign of a serious health problem, although if it’s loud or doesn’t go away, it can cause fatigue, depression, anxiety, and problems with memory and concentration. For some, tinnitus can be a source of real mental and emotional anguish.
The majority of cases of tinnitus are subjective. Objective tinnitus is far less common. However, a diagnosis of objective tinnitus is tied to how hard and well the objective (outside) listener tries to hear the sound in question. Because of this problem, some clinicians now simply refer to tinnitus as either rhythmic or non-rhythmic. Generally, rhythmic tinnitus correlates with objective tinnitus and non-rhythmic tinnitus correlates with subjective tinnitus. Specific forms of tinnitus such as pulsatile tinnitus and muscular tinnitus, which are forms of rhythmic tinnitus, are relatively rare. Pulsatile tinnitus may also be known as pulse-synchronous tinnitus. Properly identifying and distinguishing these less common forms of tinnitus is important because the underlying cause of pulsatile or muscular tinnitus can often be identified and treated.
An assessment of hyperacusis, a frequent accompaniment of tinnitus, may also be made. The measured parameter is Loudness Discomfort Level (LDL) in dB, the subjective level of acute discomfort at specified frequencies over the frequency range of hearing. This defines a dynamic range between the hearing threshold at that frequency and the loudnes discomfort level. A compressed dynamic range over a particular frequency range is associated with subjectve hyperacusis. Normal hearing threshold is generally defined as 0–20 decibels (dB). Normal loudness discomfort levels are 85–90+ dB, with some authorities citing 100 dB. A dynamic range of 55 dB or less is indicative of hyperacusis.
Why is tinnitus so disruptive to sleep? Often, it’s because tinnitus sounds become more apparent at night, in a quiet bedroom. The noises of daily life can help minimize the aggravation and disruptiveness of tinnitus sounds. But if your bedroom is too quiet, you may perceive those sounds more strongly when you try to fall asleep—and not be able to drift off easily.
To answer your question about NAC (N-acetyl-L-cysteine), I’ve seen little evidence suggesting that is effective for tinnitus. Instead – though the research is very limited – multiple anecdotal reports describe success with the herb ginkgo biloba. Try taking two tablets of standardized extract of ginkgo three times a day with meals (no more than a total dose of 240 mg a day). Ginkgo may work by increasing blood circulation to the head and neck. Give it at least a two-month trial. You might also explore cranial therapy, a gentle manipulative technique performed by osteopathic physicians. This approach seems to take the pressure or irritation off the auditory nerves. If high blood pressure is responsible for your tinnitus, try to get that under control through diet, exercise, and weight loss or medication if necessary.
Masking. Masking devices, worn like hearing aids, generate low-level white noise (a high-pitched hiss, for example) that can reduce the perception of tinnitus and sometimes also produce residual inhibition — less noticeable tinnitus for a short time after the masker is turned off. A specialized device isn't always necessary for masking; often, playing music or having a radio, fan, or white-noise machine on in the background is enough. Although there's not enough evidence from randomized trials to draw any conclusions about the effectiveness of masking, hearing experts often recommend a trial of simple masking strategies (such as setting a radio at low volume between stations) before they turn to more expensive options.
In some cases, a special audiologic device, which is worn like a hearing aid, may be prescribed. These devices, called masking agents, emit continuous, low-level white noises that suppress the tinnitus sounds. In some cases, a hearing aid may be recommended to help to suppress or diminish the sounds associated with tinnitus. A combination device (masker plus hearing aid) may also be used. Masking devices provide immediate relief by reducing or completely drowning out the tinnitus sound. However, when the masking device is removed, the tinnitus sound remains.
Over the last 40 years of treating patients suffering from tinnitus, there’s been one over the counter medication that has shown the greatest promise. While it doesn’t provide relief for everyone, I continue to see an 87% efficacy rate in my patients. The treatment, which does not require a prescription, is known as Tinnitus Control and is available online at http://www.tinnituscontrol.com
While there may be a wide range of causes, an important underlying factor for the development of tinnitus is brain plasticity.5,7 This property allows the brain to change and adapt, and it is essential to how we learn. Unfortunately, in some cases, such as with hearing loss, the auditory part of the brain may be altered as brain plasticity tries to compensate for the abnormal auditory inputs. This response leads to changes in brain activity in the auditory system (e.g., the auditory cortex) that can create a phantom percept: tinnitus. As such, while tinnitus may begin a problem at the auditory periphery, it persists because of changes throughout the auditory system. Treating tinnitus may require addressing both the initiator (e.g., hearing loss) and the driver (changes in the auditory brain).
Sound-masking devices provide a pleasant or benign external noise that partially drowns out the internal sound of tinnitus. The traditional sound-masking device is a tabletop sound machine, but there are also small electronic devices that fit in the ear. These devices can play white noise, pink noise, nature noises, music, or other ambient sounds. Most people prefer a level of external sound that is just slightly louder than their tinnitus, but others prefer a masking sound that completely drowns out the ringing.
Some tinnitus sufferers have experienced relief through hearing aids, but studies indicate that such benefits are limited to those with low-frequency tinnitus.8 For those with a tinnitus pitch above 5–6 kHz or those with a hissing or buzzing tinnitus, the benefits of hearing aids are more limited or even nonexistent. This makes sense from a neuroscience point of view, as the hearing aid will typically not be making up for hearing loss at frequencies above 6–8 kHz; this prevents any possible effects on tinnitus types that are caused by changes to higher frequency regions in the auditory system. While hearing aids are essential to improving the lives of the hearing impaired, they are not typically the best option for tinnitus; especially when used alone.
The important thing to remember about tinnitus is that the brain’s response to these random electrical signals determines whether or not a person is annoyed by their tinnitus or not. Magnetoencephalography (MEG, for short) studies have been used to study tinnitus and the brain. MEG takes advantage of the fact that every time neurons send each other signals, their electric current creates a tiny magnetic field. MEG allows scientists to detect such changing patterns of activity in the brain 100 times per second. These studies indicated tinnitus affects the entire brain and helps with understanding why certain therapies are more effective than others.
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.
Take the first step toward relief by scheduling a consultation with one of our audiologists. By carefully examining your case history and conducting audiometric testing, we can identify the likely causes of your tinnitus and recommend an effective treatment. In addition, if medically necessary, we may refer you to another physician to complete your diagnosis.
One group of 247 patients received standard (usual) care for tinnitus. This included audiological checks, counselling, prescription of a hearing aid if indicated, prescription of a “masker” if requested by the patient (a device that generates neutral sounds to distract from the noise of the tinnitus), and counselling from social workers when required.
If you develop tinnitus, it's important to see your clinician. She or he will take a medical history, give you a physical examination, and do a series of tests to try to find the source of the problem. She or he will also ask you to describe the noise you're hearing (including its pitch and sound quality, and whether it's constant or periodic, steady or pulsatile) and the times and places in which you hear it. Your clinician will review your medical history, your current and past exposure to noise, and any medications or supplements you're taking. Tinnitus can be a side effect of many medications, especially when taken at higher doses (see "Some drugs that can cause or worsen tinnitus").
Paquette et al (2017) reported a prospective study of 166 patients who had brain surgery involving removal of the medial temporal lobe. The prevalence of tinnitus increased from approximately from 10 to 20% post surgery. This study did not include a control -- a natural question would be -- suppose a different part of the brain were removed. One would also think that drilling of the skull from any source might increase tinnitus. We are presently dubious that the medial temporal lobe suppresses tinnitus.
While it’s definitely not a cure by any stretch of the imagination, if your tinnitus does not respond to Tinnitus Control, nor is there any identifiable underlying medical condition, then an effective way to drown out the sounds in your head is via noise suppression devices. These sound generators, in essence, mask the sounds of tinnitus so that you notice them less and can go about your daily life without going crazy over the annoying buzzing, whistling or ringing in your ears.
In many cases, tinnitus is caused by hyperactivity (or too much activity) in the brain’s auditory cortex. “When there’s damage or a loss of input in the ear [such as hearing loss, head trauma, or a blood vessel problem], the brain tries to turn up certain channels in order to compensate,” Dr. Kilgard explains. When the brain doesn’t get that tuning quite right, the result is tinnitus.
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