Tinnitus usually comes in the form of a high-pitched tone in one or both ears, but can also sound like a clicking, roaring or whooshing sound. While tinnitus isn't fully understood, it is known to be a sign that something is wrong in the auditory system: the ear, the auditory nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain, or the parts of the brain that process sound. Something as simple as a piece of earwax blocking the ear canal can cause tinnitus, but it can also arise from a number of health conditions. For example, when sensory cells in the inner ear are damaged from loud noise, the resulting hearing loss changes some of the signals in the brain to cause tinnitus.
Until recently, most tinnitus patients had little reason to believe doctors would ever be able to completely cure or reverse the affliction. Drug therapies had consistently failed, and so had more invasive procedures — including some surgeries to remove the auditory nerve that transmits sound from the ear to the brain, according to past research. (1,2)
Many of us experience tinnitus every once in a while. If you’re exposed to extremely loud noise, or leave a noisy environment for a quiet one, you may notice a temporary buzzing or ringing in your ear. Maybe you’ve been near loud construction—like a jackhammer, or stepped out of a loud action movie or music concert to a quiet lobby or street. (Be aware: even a single exposure to very loud noise can do damage to your hearing, and increase your risk for tinnitus.)
Almost everyone has had tinnitus for a short time after being exposed to extremely loud noise. For example, attending a loud concert can trigger short-lived tinnitus. Some medications (especially aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs taken in high doses) can cause tinnitus that goes away when the drug is discontinued. When it lasts more than six months, it's known as chronic tinnitus. As many as 50 to 60 million people in the United States suffer from this condition; it's especially common in people over age 55 and strongly associated with hearing loss. Many people worry that tinnitus is a sign that they are going deaf or have another serious medical problem, but it rarely is.
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 sufferers have tried many alternative therapies but often to no avail. Some have heard of success stories involving the use of certain vitamins, minerals, herbal preparations, or even a change in diet, but often did not experience personal success in treating tinnitus using such options. Unfortunately, no studies to date have been able to associate such treatments to any real benefits. While much of the existing research have been dedicated to helping us understand tinnitus and its etiological underpinnings, there are currently very few treatments that are clinically validated. Of the few that conducted clinical studies to evaluate the effectiveness, most did not use rigorous clinical methods such as controlling for placebo effects or double-blinding to ensure the integrity of the data and to eliminate any sources of bias. Tinnitus sufferers who access such treatments often do not experience relief from their tinnitus. As a result, tinnitus sufferers often experience confusion, frustration, a loss of hope, and skepticism after having invested time and money on available treatment options.
Prolonged exposure to loud sounds is the most common cause of tinnitus. Up to 90% of people with tinnitus have some level of noise-induced hearing loss. The noise causes permanent damage to the sound-sensitive cells of the cochlea, a spiral-shaped organ in the inner ear. Carpenters, pilots, rock musicians, street-repair workers, and landscapers are among those whose jobs put them at risk, as are people who work with chain saws, guns, or other loud devices or who repeatedly listen to loud music. A single exposure to a sudden extremely loud noise can also cause tinnitus.
Homeopathy, hypnosis, meditation and acupuncture are also thought to suppress tinnitus conditions. Studies have shown acupuncture can help relieve symptoms of tinnitus, but relief may not be seen until you have completed 10 to 15 sessions. Homeopathy, which uses plant, mineral and animal material in doses to help relieve ailments, can also be used as a treatment. Some remedies can be used to suppress loud roaring noises, echoing, dull humming and other tinnitus symptoms.
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.
Noise-induced hearing loss - Exposure to loud noises, either in a single traumatic experience or over time, can damage the auditory system and result in hearing loss and sometimes tinnitus as well. Traumatic noise exposure can happen at work (e.g. loud machinery), at play (e.g. loud sporting events, concerts, recreational activities), and/or by accident (e.g. a backfiring engine.) Noise induced hearing loss is sometimes unilateral (one ear only) and typically causes patients to lose hearing around the frequency of the triggering sound trauma.
Inspection of the eardrum may sometimes demonstrate subtle movements due to contraction of the tensor tympani (Cohen and Perez, 2003). Tensor tympani myoclonus causes a thumping. Another muscle, the stapedius, can also make higher pitched sounds. See this page for more. Opening or closing of the eustachian tube causes a clicking. The best way to hear "objective tinnitus" from the middle ear is simply to have an examiner with normal hearing put their ear up next to the patient. Stethoscopes favor low frequency sounds and may not be very helpful.
Sound therapies are one method that has previously been shown to reduce the severity of tinnitus. While not all sound therapies have gone through rigorous clinical testing, they have far greater traction and adoption in the tinnitus community. There are two types of sound therapy approaches: (1) maskers that are intended to block out the tinnitus and have the patient learn to ignore their tinnitus, and (2) sound therapies that utilize the same brain plasticity that is thought to be causing the tinnitus for the purpose of reducing it. Both approaches can be delivered via electronic devices that can produce sound. There has been an increase in tinnitus maskers that are built into hearing aids. These built-in maskers generate different sounds including white noise and random tones. Unfortunately, due to their design, hearing aids are still limited to providing masking at frequencies below 8 kHz.
A poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, lack of sleep and chronic stress are all capable of reducing immunity and making you susceptible to nerve damage, allergies and ear problems. If you frequently experience seasonal or food allergies that affect your ears, ear infections, swelling and other problems related to damage of the vestibular system, consider changing your diet, exercise routine and ways of dealing with stress, which in turn will aid your tinnitus treatment. Try natural stress relievers like exercising, yoga, meditation, taking warm baths, using essential oils and spending more time outdoors, and eat an anti-inflammatory diet.
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.