What Are the Possible Causes of Tinnitus?If you are sometimes bothered by a sensation of ringing in your ears, you are one of many millions throughout the world who experience this subjective sound or some alternative phantom noise. In the United States alone, it has been estimated that about 32% of the overall population are affected and of these, around half claim their symptoms are sufficiently intense and/or persistent to affect their quality of life. While there is a wealth of information regarding the many possible causes of tinnitus, explanations for the mechanism responsible for these subjective noises appear to be less forthcoming.
While the finer details differ, the consensus appears to be that the symptom stems from random nerve impulses, inappropriately interpreted as sounds by the auditory cortices in the brain. Given that the incidence in those with hearing loss is more than double that of the general population, there can be little doubt of a correlation between the two.
Although it is not a lifelong effect, almost everyone can expect to experience a ringing sensation in their ears occasionally. In this instance, it results from one of the most common causes of both tinnitus and temporary auditory impairment. The culprit is a sudden, loud noise. The effect is to temporarily impair the action of the specialised sensory cells lining the cochlea that are responsible for the conversion of sound waves into nerve impulses. While this reduces the perception of real sounds, it seems likely that anomalous impulses originating in the cochlea could explain the phantom ringing. Either way, there can be little doubt that there is a common origin for this symptom and noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). When exposure to loud noise is prolonged and repeated, these related effects become permanent, while they fade spontaneously when resulting from random, short-term exposures.
Loud noises, however, are just one of the many possible causes of tinnitus. In practice, the same sensation may occur as the result of a simple build-up of wax in the ear canal or an accumulation of pus due to an ear infection. In such cases, aural lavage or a course of antibiotics, respectively, should be all that is required to quickly put an end to the intrusive ringing sensation.
Sometimes, the origin of the phantom noises can be mechanical, such as an injury to the head or neck. In addition, a disorder of the temporomandibular joint due, perhaps, to arthritis, habitual grinding of the teeth, an old jaw injury, or a genetic anomaly can also trigger this annoying symptom, often accompanied by facial or aural pain and difficulty when chewing.
Chemicals are also among the common causes of tinnitus. More precisely, the phantom sounds are known to occur in susceptible individuals as a side effect of around 200 over-the-counter and prescription medications. The offending drugs include aspirin and the popular non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, Ibuprofen. Paradoxically, certain antibiotics, such as erythromycin, vancomycin, and neomycin, which might be used to treat an ear infection, are also known to provoke this symptom in some patients. The good news is that, once a problem is recognised, a change of medication will normally stop the phantom sounds.
One of the rarer causes of tinnitus is the condition known as Ménière’s Disease. In this case, the anomalous noises are just one of a whole array of symptoms associated with this condition, which affects many of the functions of the inner ear. In addition to experiencing the ringing and other subjective sounds, Ménière’s patients often display intermittent hearing loss, a sensation of pressure in the ear, and vertigo. Typically, the disease affects one ear only and although its origins are uncertain, patients with Ménière’s tend to display abnormal fluid levels in the inner ear. Rarer still among the causes of tinnitus is the benign tumour known as an acoustic neuroma. It occurs on the eighth cranial nerve, is typically a unilateral condition, and is frequently associated with one-sided hearing loss, as well as attacks of dizziness.
Whatever their origin, when persistent, these anomalous sounds, which can include buzzing, whirring, whistling and a whole variety of other phantom noises, can be extremely debilitating and can interfere with concentration and sleep, often resulting in stress and severe depression. Ironically, stress can serve to intensify the symptoms and is even believed by some to feature among the possible causes of tinnitus.
If you should experience this symptom and it fails to clear up within a few days, it could be an early sign of hearing loss. So, consult an audiologist.