Most of the causes of tinnitus alter neurological activity within the auditory cortex, the portion of the brain responsible for hearing. The transmission of sound is interrupted, so some of the neural circuits fail to receive signals. Instead of causing hearing loss, as you might expect due to the lack of stimulation, the neural circuits begin chattering. First, they chatter alone. Then, they become hyperactive and synchronous. When we experience this deviation, our brains attempt to compensate for the change by interpreting the neurological activity as sound. This can resemble ringing, buzzing, hissing, whistling, or roaring, amongst a variety of other noises.
Muscle spasms: Tinnitus that is described as clicking may be due to abnormalities that cause the muscle in the roof of the mouth (palate) to go into spasm. This causes the Eustachian tube, which helps equalize pressure in the ears, to repeatedly open and close. Multiple sclerosis and other neurologic diseases that are associated with muscle spasms may also be a cause of tinnitus, as they may lead to spasms of certain muscles in the middle ear that can cause the repetitive clicking.
High-pitched ringing. Exposure to a very loud noise or a blow to the ear can cause a high-pitched ringing or buzzing that usually goes away after a few hours. However, if there's hearing loss as well, tinnitus may be permanent. Long-term noise exposure, age-related hearing loss or medications can cause a continuous, high-pitched ringing in both ears. Acoustic neuroma can cause continuous, high-pitched ringing in one ear.
Cartoon of the middle ear showing muscles that attach to ossicles (ear bones), and ear drum. The stapedius is attached to the stapes (of course -- horseshoe object above), while the tensor tympani is attached to the ear drum. While useful, be aware that there are multiple errors in this illustration from Loyola Medical School. With permission, from: http://www.meddean.luc.edu/lumen/meded/grossanatomy/dissector/mml/images/stap.jpg
Tinnitus is not a disease in and of itself, but rather a symptom of some other underlying health condition. In most cases, tinnitus is a sensorineural reaction in the brain to damage in the ear and auditory system. While tinnitus is often associated with hearing loss, there are roughly 200 different health disorders that can generate tinnitus as a symptom. Below is a list of some of the most commonly reported catalysts for tinnitus.
Michael Chrostowski, PhD is the founder of Sound Options Tinnitus Treatments Inc. His dedication to improving the lives of tinnitus sufferers drives his vision of providing effective, affordable and accessible treatments for the many tinnitus sufferers he has met throughout his research career. With over 8 years of research in the field of tinnitus and collaborations with leaders in the field, Dr. Chrostowski was able to make use of cutting-edge research to develop software that can customize an effective and personal treatment for tinnitus. Dr. Chrostowski received a BASc in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Toronto and a PhD in neuroscience at McMaster University.
What does he mean by “ends up in the brain”? Essentially, something that causes even temporary hearing damage — such as exposure to very loud noise or a blow to the head — can change activity patterns in the brain in ways that cause the ringing. Even though some damage or problem in the ear triggered tinnitus to begin with, you continue to hear the sound you do because of a signal from the brain.
Medication. Some medications are known to be ototoxic while others list tinnitus as a side effect without causing permanent damage to the ear structures. New medications come out so often that it is difficult to maintain an up to date listing; another option, if you are experiencing tinnitus and are curious if it could be your medication, is to talk to your pharmacist or look up your specific prescriptions online through a website such as www.drugs.com. You should never stop a medication without consulting with your physician, even if you think it may be contributing to your tinnitus.
Biofeedback and stress management. Tinnitus is stressful, and stress can worsen tinnitus. Biofeedback is a relaxation technique that helps control stress by changing bodily responses. Electrodes attached to the skin feed information about physiological processes such as pulse, skin temperature, and muscle tension into a computer, which displays the output on a monitor. Patients learn how to alter these processes and reduce the body's stress response by changing their thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques may also help.
^ Langguth B, Goodey R, Azevedo A, et al. (2007). "Consensus for tinnitus patient assessment and treatment outcome measurement: Tinnitus Research Initiative meeting, Regensburg, July 2006". Tinnitus: Pathophysiology and Treatment. Progress in Brain Research. 166. pp. 525–36. doi:10.1016/S0079-6123(07)66050-6. ISBN 978-0444531674. PMC 4283806. PMID 17956816.
Between 2007 and 2011, the researchers recruited 492 Dutch adults who had been diagnosed with tinnitus. The patients had to fulfil several criteria, including having no underlying disease that was causing their tinnitus, no other health issues that precluded their participation, and to have received no treatment for their tinnitus in the five previous years. Some 66% of adults originally screened for the study participated after screening.
You don’t need to enroll in an eight-week program to get started with mindfulness training. Participants in the MBTSR program all received a copy of the groundbreaking book “Full Catastrophe Living” by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn’s book is the premier manual for practicing mindfulness in daily life. You will learn about, and be encouraged to practice, meditation and breathing techniques that can help draw your focus away from tinnitus.
It is very well accepted that tinnitus often is "centralized" -- while it is usually initiated with an inner ear event, persistent tinnitus is associated with changes in central auditory processing (Adjamian et al, 2009). Sometimes this idea is used to put forth a "therapeutic nihilism" -- suggesting that fixing the "cause" -- i.e. inner ear disorder -- will not make the tinnitus go away. This to us seems overly simplistic -- while it is clear that the central nervous system participates in perception of sounds, and thus must be a participant in the "tinnitus" process, we think that it is implausible that in most cases that there is not an underlying "driver" for persistent tinnitus.
Tinnitus can vary a lot between individuals; therefore you can find many different types of tinnitus. Tinnitus varies considerably in intensity and type. Some people describe tinnitus as high-frequency whistling sounds while others perceive tinnitus as a buzzing noise or a sound similar to butter sizzling in a frying pan. But some experience, instead, a thumping sound in the same rhythm as their heartbeat. This is called pulsatile tinnitus. Read more about the types of tinnitus.
Tinnitus can be extremely disturbing to people who have it. In many cases it is not a serious health problem, but rather a nuisance that may go away. However, some people with tinnitus may require medical or surgical treatment. Sixteen million Americans seek medical treatment each year for tinnitus, and about one-quarter of those experience it so severely it interferes with their daily activities.
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.
In addition, a healthy lifestyle can reduce the impact of tinnitus. Avoid physical and emotional stress, as these can cause or intensify tinnitus. You may be able to reduce your stress levels through exercise, meditation, deep breathing, or massage therapy. If you suffer from high blood pressure, consult your doctor for help controlling it, as this can also impact tinnitus. Finally, get plenty of rest to avoid fatigue and exercise regularly to improve your circulation. Although this won’t eliminate the ringing in your ears, it may prevent it from worsening.
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.
Along the path a hearing signal travels to get from the inner ear to the brain, there are many places where things can go wrong to cause tinnitus. If scientists can understand what goes on in the brain to start tinnitus and cause it to persist, they can look for those places in the system where a therapeutic intervention could stop tinnitus in its tracks.
Meniere’s disease isn’t directly connected to tinnitus, but people with Meniere’s often experience it, at least temporarily. Meniere's disease is an inner ear disease that typically only affects one ear. This disease can cause pressure or pain in the ear, severe cases of dizziness or vertigo and a ringing or roaring tinnitus. While Meniere’s isn’t fully understood, it appears that several relief options for tinnitus can also help with this disease. Patients are often advised to reduce stress and lower their consumption of caffeine and sodium.