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.
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 is not a disease but a symptom that can result from a number of underlying causes. One of the most common causes is noise-induced hearing loss. Other causes include ear infections, disease of the heart or blood vessels, Ménière's disease, brain tumors, emotional stress, exposure to certain medications, a previous head injury, and earwax. It is more common in those with depression.
Various techniques can help make tinnitus tolerable, although the ability to tolerate it varies from person to person. Many people find that background sound helps mask the tinnitus and helps them fall asleep. Some people play background music. Other people use a tinnitus masker, which is a device worn like a hearing aid that produces a constant level of neutral sounds. For the profoundly deaf, an implant in the cochlea (the organ of hearing) may reduce tinnitus but is only done for people with severe to profound hearing loss in both ears. If these standard techniques are not helpful, people may want to seek treatment in clinics that specialize in the treatment of tinnitus.
Vitamin Supplements. Vitamin supplements, like Lipo-Flavonoid Plus, contain the vitamins that some studies have shown to be beneficial to inner ear health. These include Vitamin C, B-1, B-2, B-6, B-12, zinc, niacin and calcium. And while I am a proponent of vitamins, I advise my patients to take a regular OTC multivitamin that costs $15, versus Lipo-Flavonoid Plus, which has the same ingredients, but costs up to $90 for the same number of pills, just because it’s packaged and marketed to people that suffer from tinnitus.
Why is tinnitus so disruptive to sleep? Often, it’s because tinnitus sounds become more apparent at night, in a quiet bedroom. The noises of daily life can help minimize the aggravation and disruptiveness of tinnitus sounds. But if your bedroom is too quiet, you may perceive those sounds more strongly when you try to fall asleep—and not be able to drift off easily.
Tinnitus patients with a TMJ disorder will experience pain in the face and/or jaw, limited ability to move the jaw, and regular popping sounds while chewing or talking. A dentist, craniofacial surgeon, or other oral health professional can appropriately diagnose and often fix TMJ issues. In many scenarios, fixing the TMJ disorder will alleviate tinnitus symptoms.
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.
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Limit use of earplugs. Earplugs are important to use to protect your hearing when you’re likely to be exposed to loud noises. (Remember, exposure to loud sounds, and noise-induced hearing loss, are common causes of tinnitus, and may make tinnitus worse if you already have the condition.) But otherwise, people with tinnitus are advised not to wear earplugs, including for sleep. Earplugs reduce your ability to hear external noise and can make tinnitus more noticeable.
White noise machines. These devices, which produce simulated environmental sounds such as falling rain or ocean waves, are often an effective treatment for tinnitus. You may want to try a white noise machine with pillow speakers to help you sleep. Fans, humidifiers, dehumidifiers and air conditioners in the bedroom also may help cover the internal noise at night.
Tinnitus is the perception of sound when no actual external noise is present. While it is commonly referred to as “ringing in the ears,” tinnitus can manifest many different perceptions of sound, including buzzing, hissing, whistling, swooshing, and clicking. In some rare cases, tinnitus patients report hearing music. Tinnitus can be both an acute (temporary) condition or a chronic (ongoing) health malady.