Tinnitus is considered to be one of the most common auditory issues, and is when an individual perceives a phantom sound in one or both of their ears. Researchers have determined several theories that explain the buzzing, humming or roaring sound, and there are many causes for this ailment as well. Tinnitus is subjective, as there are very few cases where a doctor can also hear the sound. It can range from a quiet background noise to a sound that is audible over loud external noises, making it challenging to hear and comprehend conversations. Sounds are described as everything from analogous to cicadas, wind, crickets, fluorescent lights, running engines, grinding steel or dripping tap water.
Underlying conditions or injury
According to the Journal of Clinical Neurology, roughly 40 percent of patients are not able to identify a plausible cause of their tinnitus, but there are many different factors that come into play. Although tinnitus is not a disease, it can be caused by many underlying conditions. Some otologic causes include noise-induced hearing loss, presbycusis, otosclerosis, otitis, impacted cerumen, sudden deafness and Meniere's disease. Tinnitus can also be caused by neurologic injury including whiplash, multiple sclerosis, vestibular schwannoma, head injury or cerebellopontine-angle tumors. Dental disorders or joint dysfunction can also be a cause of tinnitus.
There are several daily habits, common health issues and exposure that can play a role in suffering from tinnitus.
Age: Around the age of 60, your hearing tends to worsen. This slight loss of hearing can cause tinnitus, which is referred to as presbycusis.
Loud noise exposure: Being exposed to loud noise on a regular basis from heavy equipment, chain saws or fire arms are common causes of tinnitus. However, anyone can have common exposure to loud noises by listening to music in headphones on a regular basis or attending live music performances frequently. It is possible to experience short-term tinnitus after seeing a concert, but long-term exposure will cause more permanent damage.
Unhealthy habits: Researchers are not entirely certain why, but drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, eating certain foods and consuming caffeinated beverages can play a role in tinnitus. Frequently being fatigued or stressed can also be a factor.
Common ailments: Having anemia, allergies, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, circulatory problems, diabetes and an underactive thyroid gland are all medical conditions that can lead to tinnitus.
Issues within the ear
Inner ear damage: Small hairs on the inside of the ears move along with the pressure of sound waves, but damage to these delicate fibers can cause tinnitus. In this case, the cells in the ear trigger an electrical signal through a nerve from the ear to the brain, which the brain believes to be noise. If the inner ear hairs are bent or broken, the brain may receive random electrical impulses that create sound within your ears.
Blockage: Although ear wax is a vital part of the ear because it blocks away dirt and slows the growth of bacteria in the ear, a buildup of ear wax can create an unnatural noise. When there is too much ear wax, it can lead to loss of hearing or irritation of the ear drum, and you may need to go to the audiologist to have it removed.
Changes in the ear: If the bones in the middle of ear stiffen, or you experience an abnormal bone growth, this can be a factor of tinnitus. Many patients that report suffering from tinnitus also complain about a sensation of fullness or blockage in the middle ear, which could be due to changes in bone growth or buildup of ear wax.
Blood vessel disorders
If your tinnitus resembles a pumping, beating or pulsating sound, it could be caused by damage to the blood vessels. Doctors refer to this type of tinnitus as pulsatile tinnitus.
High blood pressure: Individuals who experience high blood pressure, or hypertension, which means that the artery walls undergo an intense amount of pressure repeatedly, can also suffer from tinnitus. Adding caffeinated beverages, stress or alcohol can further increase this risk and cause tinnitus to worsen.
Tumors: Head and neck tumors that put pressure on the blood vessels throughout the head or neck can cause or increase symptoms of tinnitus. Commonly referred to as acoustic neroma, a tumor in the head and neck affects the nerved that run from the brain to the inner ear.
Malformation of capillaries: Arteriovenous malformation (AVM) means that the arteries and veins are connected to one another abnormally. This can result in tinnitus, but people who experience this tend to only hear sounds in one ear.
Turbulent blood flow: Like high blood pressure, when the blood isn't flowing properly, it can create sounds within the ear canal. Turbulent blood flow is caused by a kinking or narrowing of the neck artery or vein.
Medications that you are taking may have side effects that cause a ringing or buzzing sensation in the ear. Some patients that already have experienced tinnitus may suffer from worsening symptoms after taking some medications as well. After going off the drugs, symptoms typically disappear or improve. One of the most common drugs is aspirin, especially if you are taking it in high doses, such as 12 or more a day. Antibiotics, including erythromycin, neomycin, polymysxin B and vancomycin, as well as cancer medications, including mechlorethamine and vincristine, and water pills, including bumetanide, furosemide or ethacrynic acid all have the ability to cause or worsen tinnitus. Some patients will experience tinnitus after using antidepressants or quinine medications as well.
Seek professional help for your tinnitus
If you're not sure of what is causing your tinnitus, an audiologist can help pinpoint the issue through a series of tests. It can be helpful to take notes of the sounds you are regularly or irregularly experience to help your hearing healthcare professional determine the best solution for you. Just as there are many causes, there are an abundance of treatment options, many of which do not include medication. Also be sure to alert your audiologist of any other medical conditions you are experiencing, medications or exposure that could be playing a role in your tinnitus.
- Tinnitus: Causes, The Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/tinnitus/DS00365/DSECTION=causes
- ATA's Most Frequently Asked Questions, American Tinnitus Association, http://www.ata.org/for-patients/faqs