Steven Doerr, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Doerr received his undergraduate degree in Spanish from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He graduated with his Medical Degree from the University Of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, Colorado in 1998 and completed his residency training in Emergency Medicine from Denver Health Medical Center in Denver, Colorado in 2002, where he also served as Chief Resident.
Sound waves travel through the ear canal to the middle and inner ear, where hair cells in part of the cochlea help transform sound waves into electrical signals that then travel to the brain's auditory cortex via the auditory nerve. When hair cells are damaged — by loud noise or ototoxic drugs, for example — the circuits in the brain don't receive the signals they're expecting. This stimulates abnormal activity in the neurons, which results in the illusion of sound, or tinnitus.
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.
The exact biological process by which hearing loss is associated with tinnitus is still being investigated by researchers. However, we do know that the loss of certain sound frequencies leads to specific changes in how the brain processes sound. In short, as the brain receives less external stimuli around a specific frequency, it begins to adapt and change. Tinnitus may be the brain’s way of filling in the missing sound frequencies it no longer receives from the auditory system.
It is important to note that existing hearing loss is sometimes not directly observable by the patient, who may not perceive any lost frequencies. But this this does not mean that hearing damage has not been done. A trained audiologist or other hearing health professional can perform sensitive audiometric tests to precisely measure the true extent of hearing loss.
A large, 2014 study of almost 14,000 people found obstructive sleep apnea was linked to significantly higher rates of hearing impairment and hearing loss. Scientists think one reason for this is changes to blood flow to the ear that result in inflammation. (We know that sleep apnea causes changes to circulation and weakens blood flow to some areas of the body, including the brain.) A related factor? People with sleep apnea are at greater risk for high blood pressure, and high blood pressure can exacerbate hearing loss, according to research.
Research shows a frequent correlation between tinnitus and hearing loss. Because tinnitus is perceived differently by each sufferer, an exact diagnosis is essential. A doctor may conduct ENT, dental, orthodontic, and orthopedic examinations in order to establish whether a case can be medically treated or not. The pitch and volume of tinnitus can be determined by special diagnostic test, and a hearing test can reveal whether hearing loss is also involved. Treatment with hearing aids is often the first step to relief from tinnitus. Hearing aids compensate for hearing loss, which enables concentration on external sounds instead of internal noises.
In persons with pulsatile tinnitus, additional tests maybe proposed to study the blood vessels and to check the pressure inside the head. Gentle pressure on the neck can be performed to block the jugular vein but not the carotid artery. The Valsalva maneuver reduces venous return by increasing intrathoracic pressure. If there is a venous hum, this usually abates or improves markedly. If the pulsation is arterial, these tests have no effect.
However, the multidisciplinary approach based on CBT is not a “cure for tinnitus”, as implied in some papers, but rather a system for managing its symptoms and effects on people’s lives. The differences in outcomes between the treatment and usual care groups were quite small, with the multidisciplinary approach giving a small improvement in quality of life compared with usual care, and moderate improvements in tinnitus severity and impairment. Also, less than 70% of participants completed the trial to 12 months, and this could have affected the reliability of the study’s overall results. Furthermore, as the patients in the study were only followed for 12 months, it is uncertain whether this approach can help in the longer term.
Exposure to loud noise. Loud noises, such as those from heavy equipment, chain saws and firearms, are common sources of noise-related hearing loss. Portable music devices, such as MP3 players or iPods, also can cause noise-related hearing loss if played loudly for long periods. Tinnitus caused by short-term exposure, such as attending a loud concert, usually goes away; both short- and long-term exposure to loud sound can cause permanent damage.