John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.
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.
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.
It is important to note that existing hearing loss is sometimes not directly observable by the patient, who may not perceive any lost frequencies. But this this does not mean that hearing damage has not been done. A trained audiologist or other hearing health professional can perform sensitive audiometric tests to precisely measure the true extent of hearing loss.
It is important to note that existing hearing loss is sometimes not directly observable by the patient, who may not perceive any lost frequencies. But this this does not mean that hearing damage has not been done. A trained audiologist or other hearing health professional can perform sensitive audiometric tests to precisely measure the true extent of hearing loss.
Some persons with severe TMJ (temporomandibular joint) arthritis have severe tinnitus. Generally these persons say that there is a "screeching" sound. This is another somatic tinnitus. TMJ is extremely common -- about 25% of the population. The exact prevalence of TMJ associated tinnitus is not established, but presumably it is rather high too. Having TMJ increases the odds that you have tinnitus too, by about a factor of 1.6-3.22 (Park and Moon, 2014; Lee et al, 2016). This is the a large risk factor for tinnitus, similar to the risk from hearing loss (see table above).
Seek treatment for hearing problems. If you’re experiencing difficulty hearing, talk to your physician and seek help from an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose throat specialist) or an audiologist. In addition to addressing any underlying health issue and improving your quality of life, improving your hearing can make tinnitus less noticeable and less bothersome, during the day and at night when you’re trying to sleep.

^ McCombe A, Baguley D, Coles R, McKenna L, McKinney C, Windle-Taylor P (2001). "Guidelines for the grading of tinnitus severity: the results of a working group commissioned by the British Association of Otolaryngologists, Head and Neck Surgeons, 1999". Clinical Otolaryngology and Allied Sciences. 26 (5): 388–93. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2273.2001.00490.x. PMID 11678946. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2017-09-24.
Another example of somatic tinnitus is that caused by temperomandibular joint disorder. The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is where the lower jaw connects to the skull, and is located in front of the ears. Damage to the muscles, ligaments, or cartilage in the TMJ can lead to tinnitus symptoms. The TMJ is adjacent to the auditory system and shares some ligaments and nerve connections with structures in the middle ear.
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.

Other potential sources of the sounds normally associated with tinnitus should be ruled out. For instance, two recognized sources of high-pitched sounds might be electromagnetic fields common in modern wiring and various sound signal transmissions. A common and often misdiagnosed condition that mimics tinnitus is radio frequency (RF) hearing, in which subjects have been tested and found to hear high-pitched transmission frequencies that sound similar to tinnitus.[71][72]
^ 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.
In addition to treating associated problems (such as depression or insomnia), there are several strategies that can help make tinnitus less bothersome. No single approach works for everyone, and you may need to try various combinations of techniques before you find what works for you. If you have age-related hearing loss, a hearing aid can often make tinnitus less noticeable by amplifying outside sounds.
Auditory-somatosensory stimulation is a similar treatment approach to Kilgard’s, in that its goal is to retune the faulty patterns of brain activity that can cause tinnitus. It involves pairing sounds played in the ear with specially timed electric impulses, which are administered to touch-sensitive nerves using a pad attached to the neck, Dr. Shore explains about the research she’s working on.
Acoustic neuroma: This is a rare subjective cause of tinnitus, and includes a certain type of brain tumor known as an acoustic neuroma. The tumors grow on the nerve that supplies hearing and can cause tinnitus. This type of the condition usually are only noticed in one ear, unlike the more common sort caused by hearing loss usually seen in both ears. Causes of objective tinnitus are usually easier to find.
The most common noise is the sound of rapid or turbulent blood flow in major vessels of the neck. This abnormal blood flow may occur because of a reduced red blood cell count (anemia) or a blockage of the arteries (atherosclerosis) and may be worsened in people with poorly controlled high blood pressure (hypertension). Some small tumors of the middle ear called glomus tumors are rich in blood vessels. Although the tumors are small, they are very near the sound-receiving structures of the ear, and blood flow through them can sometimes be heard (only in one ear). Sometimes, blood vessel malformations that involve abnormal connections between arteries and veins (arteriovenous malformations) develop in the membrane covering the brain (the dura). If these malformations are near the ear, the person sometimes can hear blood flowing through them.
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.
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.
To understand what causes tinnitus, you first need to understand what tinnitus is. Tinnitus is, very simply, unexplainable noises you hear in your head when there is no actual sound present. A person with tinnitus will often hear a whistling, humming, buzzing, whooshing, clicking or ringing in their ears, even when there is nothing in the area that is emitting that particular sound. It may be intermittent or last only a short time or never seem to stop.
Steven Doerr, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Doerr received his undergraduate degree in Spanish from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He graduated with his Medical Degree from the University Of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, Colorado in 1998 and completed his residency training in Emergency Medicine from Denver Health Medical Center in Denver, Colorado in 2002, where he also served as Chief Resident.
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).[25] These otological or neurological conditions include those triggered by infections or drugs.[26] A frequent cause is noise exposure that damages hair cells in the inner ear.
The cause of tinnitus may be difficult to determine. Your doctor will ask if you have been exposed to loud noise at work or home and will ask about medications you take, including all herbs and supplements. He or she may look in your ears to see if you have wax blockage or if the eardrum appears abnormal. If your hearing is affected, then your doctor may have you undergo a hearing test called an audiogram to measure your hearing ability in each ear.
Practice mindfulness meditation. I’ve written about the power of mindfulness mediation to reduce stress and improve sleep. A 2017 study found mindfulness meditation is also effective in helping people better manage tinnitus. Mindfulness meditation involves sitting comfortably, putting your attention on your natural breathing. When your mind wanders—to irritating tinnitus sounds, to worry about sleep, or wherever else it goes, gently return your attention to your breath. Start with a 5-minute session, and as you grow more comfortable with the practice, you can increase the time. You can practice mindfulness meditation anywhere, at any time of day—including in the shower!
Practice mindfulness meditation. I’ve written about the power of mindfulness mediation to reduce stress and improve sleep. A 2017 study found mindfulness meditation is also effective in helping people better manage tinnitus. Mindfulness meditation involves sitting comfortably, putting your attention on your natural breathing. When your mind wanders—to irritating tinnitus sounds, to worry about sleep, or wherever else it goes, gently return your attention to your breath. Start with a 5-minute session, and as you grow more comfortable with the practice, you can increase the time. You can practice mindfulness meditation anywhere, at any time of day—including in the shower!

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

A number of vital tasks carried out during sleep help maintain good health and enable people to function at their best. Sleep needs vary from individual to individual and change throughout your life. The National Institutes of Health recommend about 7-9 hours of sleep each night for older, school-aged children, teens, and most average adults; 10-12 for preschool-aged children; and 16-18 hours for newborns. There are two stages of sleep; 1) REM sleep (rapid-eye movement), and 2) NREM sleep (non-rapid-eye movement). The side effects of lack of sleep or insomnia include:
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.[30] Over 260 medications have been reported to cause tinnitus as a side effect.[31] In many cases, however, no underlying cause could be identified.[2]
There's no known cure for tinnitus. Current treatments generally involve masking the sound or learning to ignore it. A research team led by Dr. Michael Kilgard at the University of Texas at Dallas and Dr. Navzer Engineer at MicroTransponder, Inc. set out to see if they could develop a way to reverse tinnitus by essentially resetting the brain's auditory system. Their work was funded in part by NIH’s National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD).
Microvascular compression may sometimes cause tinnitus. According to Levine (2006) the quality is similar to a "typewriter", and it is fully suppressed by carbamazepine. It seems to us that response to carbamazepine is not a reliable indicator of microvascular compression as this drug stabilizes nerves and lowers serum sodium. Nevertheless, this quality of tinnitus probably justifies a trial of oxcarbamazine (a less toxic version of carbamazepine).
Antidepressants are occasionally associated with tinnitus (Robinson, 2007). For example, Tandon (1987) reported that 1% of those taking imiprimine complained of tinnitus. In a double-blind trial of paroxetine for tinnitus, 3% discontinued due to a perceived worsening of tinnitus (Robinson, 2007). There are case reports concerning tinnitus as a withdrawal symptom from Venlafaxine and sertraline (Robinson, 2007). In our clinical practice, we have occasionally encountered patients reporting worsening of tinnitus with an antidepressant, generally in the SSRI family.
Tinnitus also could be the result of neural circuits thrown out of balance when damage in the inner ear changes signaling activity in the auditory cortex, the part of the brain that processes sound. Or it could be the result of abnormal interactions between neural circuits. The neural circuits involved in hearing aren’t solely dedicated to processing sound. They also communicate with other parts of the brain, such as the limbic region, which regulates mood and emotion.
About six percent of the general population has what they consider to be "severe" tinnitus. That is a gigantic number of people ! Tinnitus is more common with advancing age. In a large study of more than 2000 adults aged 50 and above, 30.3% reported having experienced tinnitus, with 48% reporting symptoms in both ears. Tinnitus had been present for at least 6 years in 50% of cases, and most (55%) reported a gradual onset. Tinnitus was described as mildly to extremely annoying by 67%.(Sindhusake et al. 2003)

^ Jump up to: a b Schecklmann, Martin; Vielsmeier, Veronika; Steffens, Thomas; Landgrebe, Michael; Langguth, Berthold; Kleinjung, Tobias; Andersson, Gerhard (18 April 2012). "Relationship between Audiometric Slope and Tinnitus Pitch in Tinnitus Patients: Insights into the Mechanisms of Tinnitus Generation". PLOS One. 7 (4): e34878. Bibcode:2012PLoSO...734878S. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034878. PMC 3329543. PMID 22529949.


^ 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.
Tinnitus Retraining Therapy. Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT) combines a wearable device that is individually programmed to mask the specific tonal frequency of that person’s tinnitus, with psychological therapy that teaches a patient to ignore the sounds his tinnitus is creating. I consider it the best of all of the above noise suppression techniques, as it is individually tailored for each person and involves support from a trained psychological therapist. It is also the most expensive and time consuming, but in my medical opinion, the most beneficial of all the noise suppression techniques listed above.
The outlook for tinnitus depends on its cause. In people with tinnitus related to earwax buildup or medications, the condition usually will go away when the earwax is removed or the medication is stopped. In people with tinnitus related to sudden, loud noise, tinnitus may improve gradually, although there may be some permanent noise-related hearing loss.
Tinnitus is when people think they hear something in their ears but there is actually no sound. People with tinnitus actually do "hear" noises that range from a whistle to a crackling noise to a roar. It can happen only occasionally, can occur for a period of days then take a break before recurring again, or it can be constant. The sound can vary in pitch from quiet to unbearably loud, or it can stay the same.
Tinnitus remains a symptom that affects the lives of millions of people. Research is directed not only at its treatment, but also at understanding why it occurs. Research by doctors at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, Dalhousie University (Canada), and Southeast China University have published research using electrophysiology and functional MRI to better understand what parts of the brain are involved in hearing and the production of tinnitus. Their research has found that much larger areas of the brain are involved with the process of hearing than previously believed, which may help direct future diagnostic and therapeutic options.
Some instances of tinnitus are caused by infections or blockages in the ear, and the tinnitus can disappear once the underlying cause is treated. Frequently, however, tinnitus continues after the underlying condition is treated. In such a case, other therapies -- both conventional and alternative -- may bring significant relief by either decreasing or covering up the unwanted sound.
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