Stop the Ringing has a very active page on Facebook where people share their stories of triumph and turmoil with Tinnitus. Check it out here.
One thing I’ve noticed in the many conversations on that Facebook page is that some people have concrete ideas about what causes Tinnitus and seem unwaveringly attached to them. My guess is they were diagnosed with T and given a cause, and they’ve decided that applies across the board.
The simple fact if the matter is that T has numerous causes. And, sometimes, there may be no cause at all. The doctor might just say, “You have Tinnitus but I don’t know why. And there is no cure. Deal with it”.
So I wanted to chime in and give you a sense of the many causes of Tinnitus. Now, I know that it’s all too easy to self-diagnose with some kind of horrid (and possibly terminal) disease with Doctor Google. That’s not my intention here.
By all means, if you have a ringing in your ears (or chirping, buzzing, crickets, cicadas, and so on) you should have yourself seen to by an Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist (ENT).
But you should also know the potential causes of Tinnitus before getting that check-up, if only to know what the doc is taking about, much the same way you should know how your car works before taking it to the mechanic.
What Causes Tinnitus?
One of the most common causes of Tinnitus, in one way or another, is inner ear damage. Your inner ear contains tiny hairs (stereocilia) that move in response to sound waves. The movement of those cells creates electrical impulses that are sent, via the auditory nerve, to your brain. Your brain then interprets these signals as sound.
Those little hairs in your inner ear are incredibly fragile. When they get bent or broken, they have a nasty habit of sending random signals to your brain that are interpreted as the ringing we all know so well. When they get damaged, there’s little hope of restoring them, as yet.
What Damaged Inner Ear Cells Look Like
Some of the most common causes of inner ear damage include:
• Age-Related Hearing Loss (Presbycusis)
Unfortunately, this is just a side effect of our long lives. It is a very recent phenomenon that humans live as long as they do and, quite possibly, there are just parts of us that weren’t designed to function for 85 or so years. As hearing naturally fades, Tinnitus is often the result.
• Exposure to Extreme Levels of Sound
Another unfortunate fact of life, exposure to loud noise can cause inner ear damage and, in turn, Tinnitus. Whether it’s heavy machinery, war, or loud concerts, the outcome is predictable.
Temporary Tinnitus can result from a single exposure to extreme noise, and will generally fade within a few days. But repeated exposure will eventually cause irreparable damage.
Physical Conditions That Can Cause Tinnitus
• Earwax Blockage
Earwax, while generally considered an annoyance, protects your ear canal by trapping dirt and slowing bacterial growth. However, too much of a good thing can cause trouble (doesn’t it always?). An excess buildup of earwax can become difficult to wash away and lead to Tinnitus.
• Changes to The Inner Ear Bone (Otosclerosis)
This condition tends to be genetic, which is either good or bad, depending on your family’s medical history. Otosclerosis is a stiffening of the bones in your middle ear, which may affect your hearing and cause tinnitus.
Illness-Related Causes of Tinnitus
• Meniere’s Disease
Tinnitus is often a symptom of Meniere’s disease, an inner ear disorder that often results in vertigo and hearing loss.
TMJ is an issue with the temperomandibular joint, where your lower jawbone meets your skull. It can be the cause of Tinnitus.
• Head or Neck Trauma
Obviously, if you’ve had head or neck trauma, you’re aware of it. That could very well be the cause of your Tinnitus.
• Acoustic Neuroma (Vestibular Schwannoma)
Acoustic Neuroma is a benign tumor that forms on the 8th cranial nerve and typically grows 1-2mm per year. Tinnitus from a Vestibular Schwannoma tends to be isolated to a single ear so if that is in line with your symptoms you should get it checked out.
Vitamin and Nutrient Deficiencies
• Vitamin B12
Vitamin B-12, also called cobalamin, plays a key role in the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system, and for the formation of blood. It is critical for Tinnitus sufferers to get as much B12 as possible, which primarily comes from meat.
Zinc plays a critical role in the regulation of DNA repair mechanisms, cell proliferation, differentiation and apoptosis (whereby infected cells, quite literally, commit suicide).
Researchers estimate that as much as 30% of Tinnitus sufferers are Zinc deficient. Not only is a Zinc deficiency problematic for T, it is believed to be the cause for a whole host of chronic maladies.
Required for nearly all energy generation processes in the body, Magnesium is vital in preventing and reducing hearing loss, one of the underlying causes of tinnitus.
Blood Vessel Disorders (Pulsatile Tinnitus)
Some Tinnitus is caused by blood vessel disorders. Typically, this type of tinnitus is not a constant sound. Rather, the sound tends to follow your heart beat. If you have a pulsing sound in your ears, these conditions should not be ruled out.
At this point I’d like to remind you that I am neither a doctor nor a scientist. I’m just a guy who has Tinnitus and wants to create a community that can work together to find answers. The following conditions are very, very serious and I don’t want to give the impression that I’m taking them lightly. If you’re seeking answers to the cause of your Tinnitus and feel that the below may apply to you, it’s my strong recommendation that you discuss these notions with your doctor. In this case, Tinnitus may be the very thing that saves your life…
• Head and Neck Tumors
A tumor that presses on a blood vessel in your head or neck (vascular neoplasm) can cause Pulsatile Tinnitus.
As plaque builds up in your veins over time, the pathways become restricted. This can reduce blood flow to your ears, causing Pulsatile Tinnitus. If Atherosclerosis is the cause of your Tinnitus, you will likely hear it as a pulse in both ears. If that’s the case, you need to get to your doctor ASAP.
• High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)
Hypertension increases blood pressure which can cause a pounding in your ears.
• Turbulent blood flow
Narrowing or kinking of your carotid artery or jugular vein can cause turbulent blood flow, leading to tinnitus.
Medicine, as we know all too well, has side effects. One of those is Tinnitus. Often, the dosage that will cause or worsen T is very high. If you take any of the following medications and Tinnitus is the result, consider reducing the dosage or switching meds:
- Polymyxin B
- Ethacrynic Acid
- Quinine medications
As we’ve seen, there are many causes of the dreaded Tinnitus, and not all of them are nerve damage. If you’re among the lucky few who have a reparable form of T, the above list should be helpful in deducing the cause. If, like me, your T is the result of noise-induced hearing loss, we have to keep our fingers crossed that some genius will figure out a way to fix us.
In the meantime, we do have methods at our disposal to control the intensity of the noise, namely stress reduction, mindfulness techniques and nutrient replacements. I’m currently researching mindfulness (and taking an 8-week class in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and hope to have something useful to bring you in the coming weeks.
And, as always, remember that we’re all in this together…