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.
Removing Excess Earwax. There is a small chance that your tinnitus is being caused by an excess build up of ear wax that is blocking the ear canal. This is especially common in older patients who have a lot of ear hair that ear wax has been building up on over the years. By removing both the excess hair and ear wax, especially if it’s in contact with your ear drum, your tinnitus can improve.
About 25-30 million Americans have tinnitus as a condition, and they experience these noises on a regular, most often daily, basis. About 40 percent of people with tinnitus hear tinnitus noise through 80 percent of their day. And for a smaller group of people—about 1 in 5, tinnitus is disruptive enough to significantly interfere with daily functioning, becoming disabling or nearly disabling.
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 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.
Physical exam: Physical examination will focus on the head and neck, and especially the ears, including the auditory canals and tympanic membranes. Since the sense of hearing is conducted through one of the cranial nerves (the short nerves that lead directly from the brain to the face, head and neck), a careful neurologic exam also may be performed. Weakness or numbness in the face, mouth, and neck may be associated with a tumor or other structural abnormality pressing on a nerve. The healthcare professional may listen to the flow in the carotid arteries in the neck for an abnormal sound (bruit), since carotid artery stenosis (narrowing of the artery) can transmit a sound to the ear that may cause tinnitus.
Acoustic qualification of tinnitus will include measurement of several acoustic parameters like frequency in cases of monotone tinnitus or frequency range and bandwidth in cases of narrow band noise tinnitus, loudness in dB above hearing threshold at the indicated frequency, mixing-point, and minimum masking level. In most cases, tinnitus pitch or frequency range is between 5 kHz and 10 kHz, and loudness between 5 and 15 dB above the hearing threshold.
Resetting the tonotopic map. Researchers are exploring how to take advantage of the tonotopic map, which organizes neurons in the auditory cortex according to the frequency of the sound to which they respond. Previous research has shown a change in the organization of the tonotopic map after exposing the ear to intense noise. By understanding how these changes happen, researchers could develop techniques to bring the map back to normal and relieve tinnitus.
Objective tinnitus is very rare. It can be heard by a doctor either using a stethoscope or by listening very closely to your ear. It occurs rarely and may due to involuntary muscle contractions or vascular deformities. The sound is often described as pulsating and may be heard in time with your heartbeat. Objective tinnitus usually has a determinable cause and disappears when treated by surgery or other medical intervention.
It’s the same mechanism that’s happening in people who feel a phantom limb sensation after losing a limb, explains Susan Shore, PhD, a professor of otolaryngology, molecular physiology, and biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. With tinnitus the loss of hearing causes specific brain neurons to increase their activity as a way of compensating, she explains. “These neurons also synchronize their activity as they would if there were a sound there, but there is no external sound,” she adds.
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.