What Causes Tinnitus?

August 8, 2016

Tinnitus itself is not a disease process but a symptom of an underlying issue. A number of health conditions can cause or worsen tinnitus, an annoying ringing, buzzing or hissing sound that occurs in the ears of nearly 50 million Americans. In many cases, an exact cause is never found. If you experience tinnitus, you shouldn’t worry. Very rarely is tinnitus caused by something that is dangerous to your health. Understanding what tinnitus is and what could possibly cause it or exacerbate it can help alleviate some of the stress and irritation that most tinnitus sufferers report experiencing.

A common cause of tinnitus is damage to the inner ear hair cells of the cochlea, a spiral-shaped cavity in the bone of the skull just behind the ear that resembles a snail shell and contains nerve endings essential for hearing. These tiny, delicate hairs sit in a fluid and move in relation to the pressure of sound waves through the fluid. This movement triggers an electrical signal through the auditory nerve that travels from the ear to the brain. The brain then interprets these signals as sound. If the hairs inside the cochlea are bent or broken, they can produce random electrical impulses to the brain, which are then interpreted as sound. This sound is what we call tinnitus.

Other causes of tinnitus include middle ear problems, chronic health conditions and injuries to or conditions that affect the auditory nerve or the hearing center of the brain.

Common causes of tinnitus
In most instances, the exact cause of tinnitus is unknown. There are some health conditions, however, that are known to cause tinnitus:

Exposure to loud sounds: Long-term noise exposure on the job is a leading cause of hearing loss, especially in men. Loud noises from industrial equipment, construction sights and from the use of firearms by our military are common sources of noise-related hearing loss. Personal music players, such as MP3 players or iPods can cause noise induced hearing loss over time as well. Tinnitus can also occur with short-term exposure to loud noise. For instance, you may experience a ringing in the ears after attending a loud concert. This type of tinnitus usually goes away within hours while long-term exposure to loud sound can cause permanent damage.
Excessive earwax: Earwax protects your ear canal by trapping dirt or other intruders and by helping to slow the growth of the bacteria and fungus that naturally occur in the ear. When too much earwax accumulates, however, it can be difficult for the ear to rid itself of the wax, which occurs naturally with time. Excessive wax accumulation can cause hearing loss and a low pitched ringing or roaring in the affected ear.
Changes in the bones of the middle ear: Stiffening of the joints between the bones of the middle ear, the smallest bones of the body, is called otosclerosis. This stiffness happens gradually and may affect hearing as well as cause tinnitus. This condition, often referred to as arthritis of the middle ear tends to run in families.
Age-related hearing loss: Accumulation of birthdays happens to the best of us. For many people, hearing worsens as those birthdays accumulate. Hearing loss in the high frequencies is the most common cause of tinnitus. The medical term for hearing loss due to the aging process is presbycusis.
Stress: It is suggested that stress increases pressure on the nerves that run up the back of the neck, increasing the likelihood of tinnitus. The exact source is unknown but increased tension in the muscles of the neck and shoulders is common in those who are exposed to situations of excessive long-term stress.

Less common causes of tinnitus
Some causes of tinnitus are less common and in most cases, the causes of the tinnitus are a more important focus than the tinnitus itself.

Meniere’s disease: This disorder of the inner ear balance system causes an excessive accumulation of fluid in the inner ear. The tinnitus experienced by those with Meniere’s disease is often described as a low-pitched roar.
Jaw disorders: The temperomandibular joint (TMJ) juts up into the ear canal when the mouth is opened widely. In some instances, disorders of this joint can cause ringing in the ears.
Traumatic injury to the head or neck: Most commonly caused by sudden trauma, injuries to the head or neck can cause neurological disorders that can affect the organs of the inner ear or the auditory nerve itself. In some instances, traumatic injury can cause dysfunction in the area of the brain that processes sound. These type of injuries most commonly cause ringing in only one ear.
Tumor: An acoustic neuroma, a non-cancerous tumor that develops on the auditory nerve, can cause tinnitus in the ear that has the tumor.
Blood flow issues: With the aging process, it is not uncommon to develop a buildup of deposits, called plaque in the major blood vessels of the body. If a buildup happens close to the middle or inner ear, the blood vessels lose the ability to flex or expand optimally with each heartbeat. This can cause blood flow to become more forceful, making it easier for the ear to detect the beats. This type of tinnitus is called pulsatile tinnitus.
Medications: Take a look at the side effects of most prescription medications and you might be surprised at how many have the possible side effect of tinnitus. In general, a physician isn’t as concerned with causing tinnitus as treating the symptoms of a disease or condition. Generally speaking, the higher the dose of a medication, the worse the tinnitus becomes. Often the unwanted noise disappears when the medication is stopped. If you experience tinnitus, talk to your doctor about other alternatives. If your curious about the medications you are currently taking, visit drugwatch.com for the side effects associated with the most commonly prescribed medications.

If you have tinnitus, talk to your doctor or hearing healthcare provider. He or she will make sure to pursue every avenue to determine what is causing the ringing in your ears. Although tinnitus is not often curable, talking with your healthcare provider can start you down the right path toward finding a solution or, in the least, increasing your understanding of what may be causing it and what you need to do to relieve the stress and irritation that tinnitus often causes. Call today and make an appointment for a tinnitus evaluation. We’ll be happy to help.

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