What Is Tinnitus?

Tinnitus is the perception of sound, or phantom noise, in the ears or head where no external source is present. Tinnitus can be intermittent or constant, in one ear or both ears. The volume can range from subtle to piercing.

Normal Means of Hearing: Sound would normally be a series of pressure waves that move the ear drum in and out. The chain of bones in the middle ear transform that, moving finally, the last bone in the chain called the stapes. Much like when you take a rock and throw it into the water you can see the waves ripple away from it, the stapes bone creates waves in the fluids of the inner ear. The inner ear compartment (cochlea) has small hair cells, called cilia, suspended in this fluid. As they move they discharge an electrical signal onto the hearing nerve and it is sent back to the brain where it is interpreted. So, the purpose of the cilia is to transmit the signal to the nerve and then on to the brain.

Why Is the Noise Created?

With tinnitus, the cilia are damaged or destroyed. In accidents, a head trauma can destroy cilia in the cochlea or the explosion of the air bag deploying can cause hearing loss and tinnitus.

You would think with the cilia destroyed, there would simply be hearing loss. That is not always the case. Most undamaged ears perceive that a signal is being created by the cilia. The cilium itself also creates a signal periodically which basically tells the brain there is silence. If that signal is lost, you get what is called disinhibition — the loss of the signal for silence. When there is no signal telling the brain there is silence, the brain then interprets that as a noise or an abnormal perception — which can be described as ringing, buzzing, roaring, clicking, whistling, or hissing.

Treatment for Tinnitus

Cilia are similar to brain cells in that once they are destroyed they are gone forever. They do not heal or regenerate. People have tried different things to minimize the effects or improve the severity of tinnitus, including:

  • taking supplements such as magnesium, zinc, Ginkgo biloba, or B vitamins
  • acupuncture, cranio-sacral therapy, magnets, hyperbaric oxygen, or hypnosis
  • avoid alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, foods with a high sugar content, use of tonic water

Treatment options:

  • There is one drug that is commercially available in the United States that has been used for the treatment of tinnitus, but it has a number of unacceptable side effects. Most people choose not to take it.
  • Hearing aids are an option, but can have a boom quality — they amplify frequencies that the patient does not want amplified.
  • Masking devices can be purchased that can create another noise at another frequency that is less objectionable or at a frequency with which there is less interference.

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