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Causes of Tinnitus

Tinnitus (TIN-it-us)

Tinnitus is ringing, buzzing, roaring, or other sounds in the ear. For some, it is periodic, the length of the episode and strength can vary. For others, it is permanent and presents in one or both ears. Millions of Americans suffer from tinnitus, and far too many have been told that there is nothing to do but live with it or simply ignore it. While this may have been the practice in the past, research has shown that some new treatment methods are quite effective in combatting tinnitus.


It is not yet understood which particular mechanism is the cause of each individual person’s tinnitus. Fortunately, treatment is very effective and the need to individualize each treatment plan has not been required.


Inside the cochlea (in the inner ear) are row upon row of 20,000 hair cells that transform sound vibrations into electrochemical nerve impulses. The way this mechanism works is by the fluid shifting in the cochlea in accordance with vibration coming from the middle ear bones. The fluid rushes past these hairs cells and causes them to bend. The bending of these hairs opens a valve underneath them, allowing the potassium-rich fluid they live in to reach a sodium-filled fluid underneath. The potassium mixes with the sodium causing electricity. This electrical charge is then sent from the hearing nerve to the brain where the sound is recognized.

When these hair cells become damaged, they lay flat which puts them permanently out of place. When hair cells are displaced, the valve stays open causing the two fluids to continuously mix. This mixture causes the auditory nerve to constantly misfire. Since each of these hair cell bundles represents a specific pitch, the pitch of the ringing you experience from tinnitus generally corresponds to the area with the greatest damage.


Just like the cochlea, the auditory cortex is tonotopically organized, meaning that each neuron is responsible for a different frequency. When hearing loss occurs, certain neurons lack input in a particular frequency range and therefore the sound is not transmitted to the brain and cannot be heard. Neural stimulation happens in relatively large regions of the brain, not generally one neuron at a time. The portion of the brain responsible for hearing is close to other regions which emit neural stimulation, and if an auditory neuron is not getting stimulation from the hearing nerve, it could very well pick up electrical activity from an adjacent region of the brain and respond. Since that neuron is responsible for a specific sound frequency, when it fires in response to the adjacent activity, a ringing sound at the pitch that neuron represents is heard.


Tinnitus can also be caused by things we consume, be it caffeine, salt, or prescription and over-the-counter medications. Aspirin, along with many other common medications, is often linked to tinnitus. This type of tinnitus can usually be remedied by a simple visit with your health professional to seek alternative medication.

Other health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes have also been linked to tinnitus. Be sure to have regular physicals to ensure that all such issues are identified and addressed appropriately