Causes of Tinnitus

Tinnitus (literally “ringing” in Latin) is characterized by ringing, buzzing, or noises that originate in the ear or the head, and can cause discomfort and stress.

Though this condition is usually not dangerous, it can be a symptom of another health problem or underlying condition. Tinnitus can cause so many stressful side effects, including fatigue, sleep problems, concentration difficulty, memory problems, depression, anxiety, and irritability. Though it's not necessarily serious, it can be quite debilitating.

What Causes Tinnitus?

Tinnitus may have several underlying causes. Your doctor may begin investigating the condition by first finding out what kind of tinnitus you suffer from. There are two general types of tinnitus: subjective and objective tinnitus.

Subjective tinnitus means that only you can hear the noise or ringing in your ears. Objective tinnitus means that it may be possible for your physician to also hear the noise or ringing while performing an exam.

Tinnitus can be caused by a number of things from certain medications to a variety of health problems. Your physician will take a detailed history of your health and medications, perform a thorough examination, and possibly order a hearing test or conduct other tests of the auditory system.

Possible causes of tinnitus include:

  • Age-related hearing loss
  • Exposure to loud noise
  • Earwax buildup
  • Abnormal bone growth in the ear
  • Meniere's disease
  • Stress and depression
  • Head or neck injuries
  • Benign tumor of the cranial nerve
  • Long-term aspirin use

In some cases, the exact cause of the tinnitus may not be found but serious underlying conditions can be ruled out.

The auditory system involves highly complicated inner ear structures, many nerve pathways and innumerable nuclei in the central nervous system that form a complex meshwork. To pinpoint tinnitus to a certain structure is often not possible.

Tinnitus can be explained by abnormal neural activity in the auditory system.  Loss of hearing due to any cause can trigger tinnitus.  Sometimes this is due to age related hearing loss from loss of some of the sound receptor cells "outer hair cells" in the hearing organ (cochlea).

There is not one type, one site or one origin of tinnitus, but a multitude of types, sites, and origins. It is also unlikely that one hypothesis on the cause of tinnitus could explain all the features.

Treatment of Tinnitus

Generally, most patients will not need any medical treatment for their tinnitus. For patients who are greatly bothered by tinnitus, they may use some masking techniques such as listening to a fan or radio which would mask some of their tinnitus. In addition, other sound source generators can be obtained and be adjusted to sound-like environmental sounds and this is also effective in masking tinnitus. There are apps available for your smartphone that can be helpful as well to provide masking music tracks or sounds.  Use of tinnitus masking techniques can be especially helpful when trying to fall asleep.  . If you are fitted with a hearing aid, newer models can be set up with a built in tinnitus masking program.   Masking prevents the wearer from hearing his own tinnitus.

Other measures to control tinnitus include:

--Avoiding anxiety

--Get adequate rest

--Reduce caffeine intake

--Reduce use of over the counter non-steroidal medications (such as aspirin, ibuprofen, etc)

--Avoid stimulants, smoking and stress

There are medications which can be utilized to help suppress tinnitus. They are not effective for every patient. Some of these medications can decrease the intensity of the tinnitus and make it less noticeable to the patient. There is, however, no drug which will cure tinnitus. There are some drugs which can actually cause or exacerbate tinnitus. If you have tinnitus and are on medication, you should discuss any possible adverse symptoms or side effects with your physician. In many instances, if a drug that is causing tinnitus is discontinued, the tinnitus will go away.