A wealth of research has gone into understanding the mechanisms of tinnitus due to the increased concern in our ageing and noise exposed society through the support of organizations such as the Tinnitus Research Institute, the American Tinnitus Association and even the US Department of Defense. This research has helped us to understand not only why and how this phantom percept can develop, but also sheds light on why it may sound like a hiss for one person and a high pitched tone for another.7 In addition, neuroscientists have shown connections between the limbic system (where emotions are processed) and the auditory system; it is not uncommon for tinnitus to increase during times of stress or negative emotions.5 As such, the effective tinnitus treatment strategies should be enjoyable and positive, and should account for the variability in what tinnitus sounds like for each patient.
But it’s still a significant improvement. And Kilgard says he and others are working to make the treatment even more effective. He suspects this type of therapy is not too far off from being available to patients outside of research studies. “It’s in the late stages of development,” he says. “It could be available to the public in as little as a year or two.”
The majority of cases of tinnitus are subjective. Objective tinnitus is far less common. However, a diagnosis of objective tinnitus is tied to how hard and well the objective (outside) listener tries to hear the sound in question. Because of this problem, some clinicians now simply refer to tinnitus as either rhythmic or non-rhythmic. Generally, rhythmic tinnitus correlates with objective tinnitus and non-rhythmic tinnitus correlates with subjective tinnitus. Specific forms of tinnitus such as pulsatile tinnitus and muscular tinnitus, which are forms of rhythmic tinnitus, are relatively rare. Pulsatile tinnitus may also be known as pulse-synchronous tinnitus. Properly identifying and distinguishing these less common forms of tinnitus is important because the underlying cause of pulsatile or muscular tinnitus can often be identified and treated.
Subjective tinnitus is the most frequent type of tinnitus. It can have many possible causes, but most commonly it results from hearing loss. When the tinnitus is caused by disorders of the inner ear or auditory nerve it is called otic (from the Greek word for ear). These otological or neurological conditions include those triggered by infections or drugs. A frequent cause is noise exposure that damages hair cells in the inner ear.
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Antidepressants. Antidepressants, such as nortriptyline and amitriptyline, have been used as mood enhancers to help someone with tinnitus cope with the life changing implications and complications it brings. However, they are often only prescribed in the most severe of tinnitus cases as they carry some serious side effects that might not make them worth taking for everyone. These include blurred vision, heart problems, dry mouth and constipation.
Seek treatment for hearing problems. If you’re experiencing difficulty hearing, talk to your physician and seek help from an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose throat specialist) or an audiologist. In addition to addressing any underlying health issue and improving your quality of life, improving your hearing can make tinnitus less noticeable and less bothersome, during the day and at night when you’re trying to sleep.
John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.
A diagnosis of tinnitus is based upon identification of characteristic symptoms, a detailed patient history, a thorough clinical evaluation and complete audiologic testing. These steps will help to differentiate rhythmic tinnitus from non-rhythmic tinnitus. It cannot be overemphasized that tinnitus is a symptom of another underlying condition and not a diagnosis in and of itself. Because of the high number of underlying causes of tinnitus, a variety of specialized tests to detect the specific cause may be necessary. Attempting to identify the underlying cause of tinnitus is the first step in evaluating a person with tinnitus.
The accepted definition of chronic tinnitus, as compared to normal ear noise experience, is five minutes of ear noise occurring at least twice a week. However, people with chronic tinnitus often experience the noise more frequently than this and can experience it continuously or regularly, such as during the night when there is less environmental noise to mask the sound.
Persistent tinnitus may cause anxiety and depression. Tinnitus annoyance is more strongly associated with psychological condition than loudness or frequency range. Psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances and concentration difficulties are common in those with strongly annoying tinnitus. 45% of people with tinnitus have an anxiety disorder at some time in their life.
Most tinnitus is subjective, meaning that only you can hear the noise. But sometimes it's objective, meaning that someone else can hear it, too. For example, if you have a heart murmur, you may hear a whooshing sound with every heartbeat; your clinician can also hear that sound through a stethoscope. Some people hear their heartbeat inside the ear — a phenomenon called pulsatile tinnitus. It's more likely to happen in older people, because blood flow tends to be more turbulent in arteries whose walls have stiffened with age. Pulsatile tinnitus may be more noticeable at night, when you're lying in bed and there are fewer external sounds to mask the tinnitus. If you notice any new pulsatile tinnitus, you should consult a clinician, because in rare cases it is a sign of a tumor or blood vessel damage.
If the source of the problem remains unclear, you may be sent to an otologist or an otolaryngologist (both ear specialists) or an audiologist (a hearing specialist) for hearing and nerve tests. As part of your examination, you may be given a hearing test called an audiogram. An imaging technique, such as an MRI or a CT scan, may also be recommended to reveal any structural problem.