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.
According to the American Tinnitus Association, most cases of tinnitus are caused by hearing loss. Occasionally though, tinnitus is caused by an irritation to the auditory system. Tinnitus can sometimes be a symptom of a problem with the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). If your tinnitus is caused by TMJ, then a dental procedure or realignment of your bite may alleviate the problem.
If the cause of your tinnitus is excessive earwax, your doctor will clean out your ears by suction with a small curved instrument called a curette, or gently flush it out with warm water. If you have an ear infection, you may be given prescription ear drops containing hydrocortisone to help relieve the itching and an antibiotic to fight the infection.
As a hearing healthcare provider, I regularly get asked about a cure for tinnitus. Trust me, if there was one, I would be using it! I have had tinnitus for more than seven years. It makes it hard to sleep, to concentrate, to read a book. Basically, anything that is normally done in quiet became a struggle for me. (To see how tinnitus is affecting you, take our free tinnitus test.)
Although there’s no proven cure for tinnitus, there are treatments that help make it easier to ignore. For example, you can wear devices in your ear(s) that produce soothing therapeutic noises to shift your focus away from the tinnitus. Other devices produce constant, soft noise to mask the tinnitus. Tinnitus sufferers who also have hearing loss sometimes find relief simply by wearing properly fitted hearing aids.
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.
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.
Supporting the idea that central reorganization is overestimated as "the" cause of tinnitus, a recent study by Wineland et al showed no changes in central connectivity of auditory cortex or other key cortical regions (Wineland et al, 2012). Considering other parts of the brain, Ueyama et al (2013) reported that there was increased fMRI activity in the bilateral rectus gyri, as well as cingulate gyri correlating with distress. Loudness was correlated with values in the thalamus, bilateral hippocampus and left caudate. In other words, the changes in the brain associated with tinnitus seem to be associated with emotional reaction (e.g. cingulate), and input systems (e.g. thalamus). There are a few areas whose role is not so obvious (e.g. caudate). This makes a more sense than the Wineland result, but of course, they were measuring different things. MRI studies related to audition or dizziness must be interpreted with great caution as the magnetic field of the MRI stimulates the inner ear, and because MRI scanners are noisy.
An ultrasound is another test that may be used to aid in the diagnosis of tinnitus. An ultrasound uses reflected high-frequency sound waves and their echoes to create images of structures within the body. An ultrasound can reveal how blood flows within vessels, but is only useful for accessible vessels. It is not helpful for blood vessels within the skull.
Millions of Americans experience tinnitus, often to a debilitating degree, making it one of the most common health conditions in the country. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that nearly 15% of the general public — over 50 million Americans — experience some form of tinnitus. Roughly 20 million people struggle with burdensome chronic tinnitus, while 2 million have extreme and debilitating cases.1