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.
Although mitochondrial DNA variants are thought to predispose to hearing loss, a study of polish individuals by Lechowicz et al, reported that "there are no statistically significant differences in the prevalence of tinnitus and its characteristic features between HL patients with known HL mtDNA variants and the general Polish population." This would argue against mitochondrial DNA variants as a cause of tinnitus, but the situation might be different in other ethnic groups.
Though the exact cause of tinnitus — as in the specific mechanism that creates these phantom sounds in some people — remains unknown, contributing factors and triggers have been identified. Excessive exposure to loud noise is often a factor because of the damage done to your auditory system. Tinnitus may also result from jaw-joint dysfunction (e.g., teeth grinding, temporomandibular joint disorder) or chronic neck muscle strain.
When there does not seem to be a connection with a disorder of the inner ear or auditory nerve, the tinnitus is called nonotic (i.e. not otic). In some 30% of tinnitus cases, the tinnitus is influenced by the somatosensory system, for instance people can increase or decrease their tinnitus by moving their face, head, or neck. This type is called somatic or craniocervical tinnitus, since it is only head or neck movements that have an effect.
Patients with head or neck injury may have particularly loud and disturbing tinnitus (Folmer and Griest, 2003). Tinnitus due to neck injury is the most common type of "somatic tinnitus". Somatic tinnitus means that the tinnitus is coming from something other than the inner ear. Tinnitus from a clear cut inner ear disorder frequently changes loudness or pitch when one simply touches the area around the ear. This is thought to be due to somatic modulation of tinnitus. We have encountered patients who have excellent responses to cervical epidural steroids, and in persons who have both severe tinnitus and significant cervical nerve root compression, we think this is worth trying as treatment.
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