Tinnitus is an elusive medical mystery. In most cases, it's not caused by anything life-threatening, but it has an enormous impact on a person's quality of life.
While many conditions are linked to tinnitus, we still don't know how or why tinnitus occurs for people who are otherwise healthy. For example, even though years of loud noise exposure is a risk factor, not all people exposed to loud noise develop tinnitus.
The current theory is that nerve damage or dysfunction occurs somewhere along the body's auditory pathways. As sound travels from your ears to the brain, there are plenty of places along the way where something can go wrong, leading to disrupted hearing. This means that tinnitus is likely not just one disease—with one simple treatment. A person may have multiple risk factors, making it hard to know if there's a single culprit.
Most common risk factors for tinnitus
Aging, loud noise exposure, and certain habits are all strongly linked to tinnitus. However, you can still develop tinnitus even if you have none of these risk factors.
Hearing loss due to aging is called presbycusis, and it often starts around the age of 60. This gradual loss of hearing as the inner ear deteriorates can cause tinnitus as well. The worse the hearing loss, the more likely you are to have tinnitus, too: "Those with a hearing impairment have a higher risk for tinnitus, and the associated increase in risk is dependent on the severity of hearing impairment," states a large survey of U.S. adults.
Being exposed to loud noise on a regular basis from heavy equipment, chain saws, or firearms are common causes of hearing loss and tinnitus. This is a big problem among both active military members and veterans, who experience tinnitus more often than the general public. Noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus also can be caused by listening to loud music through headphones or attending loud concerts frequently. It is possible to experience short-term tinnitus after seeing a concert, but long-term exposure will cause permanent damage.
Researchers are not entirely certain why, but drinking alcohol excessively, 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. In short, if you're not taking good care of your overall health, you are more susceptible to tinnitus.
Anemia, allergies, impacted earwax, diabetes and an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism) are all common medical conditions that can be associated with tinnitus.
Medical causes of tinnitus
Though not as common, underlying medical conditions or injuries can trigger tinnitus. If you have tinnitus, start your treatment path by seeking out a hearing healthcare professional who specializes in tinnitus diagnostics so they can help identify the underlying cause. If the common causes for tinnitus are ruled out, the practitioner will refer you to another specialist for further evaluation and treatment. Listed below are related medical specialties who might be able to help you determine the cause of your tinnitus.
Disorders of the ear
Otosclerosis, Meniere's disease or impacted earwax can cause tinnitus. If your hearing care practitioner suspects you have a condition originating in the ear, they may refer you to an otolaryngologist, or ear, nose and throat (ENT) physician.
Head injuries and neurological diseases
A head injury, such as whiplash or concussion, can cause damage to the delicate inner ear structure, which may lead to tinnitus. Also, neurologic diseases like multiple sclerosis can result in tinnitus, and tumors on the auditory or vestibular nerve can create tinnitus by pressing on the neural connections. In this case, a neurologist would be the primary physician to help you.
Heart and blood vessel problems
If your tinnitus resembles a pumping, beating or pulsating sound, it could be caused by damage to your blood vessels. This is known as pulsatile tinnitus. Some common underlying cardiac causes of tinnitus include high blood pressure, turbulent blood flow, heart disease, and malformations of the small arteries. Seek prompt medical care if you hear pulsing sounds.
Medications that cause tinnitus
The most common drugs known to cause tinnitus are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (like aspirin), diuretics, certain antibiotics and cancer drugs, and the malaria drug quinine. But many others can cause tinnitus, too. If you experience tinnitus after starting any new medication, or changing a dosage, discuss it right away with your pharmacist or physician to determine if you should stop, reduce, or change the medications you are currently taking.
Did you know? One of the most common drugs known to cause tinnitus is aspirin, especially when taken in high doses.
Seek help for your tinnitus
If you're not sure of what is causing your tinnitus, a hearing care professional 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 put together the clues to what may be causing it. Be sure to alert your practitioner of any pertinent medical history, medications or excessive noise exposure that could be playing a role in your tinnitus.