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Causes of tinnitus vary.

Though the exact cause of tinnitus — as in the specific mechanism that creates these phantom sounds in some people — remains unknown, contributing factors and triggers have been identified. Excessive exposure to loud noise is often a factor because of the damage done to your auditory system. Tinnitus may also result from jaw-joint dysfunction (e.g., teeth grinding, temporomandibular joint disorder) or chronic neck muscle strain.

While tinnitus is as varied as its causes, it can be grouped into two categories: tonal and non-tonal. Tonal tinnitus is more common and describes the perception of a near-continuous sound or overlapping sounds with a well-defined frequency (e.g., whistling, ringing, buzzing). Non-tonal forms of tinnitus include humming, clicking, crackling, and rumbling.

Tinnitus is identifiable.

Not knowing the exact cause of your tinnitus doesn’t make your symptoms any less real.

Brain scans indicate increased metabolic activity in the region of the left auditory cortex in tinnitus patients, suggesting that tinnitus is not exclusively related to the ear.

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Conscious and unconscious perception of sound.

Normally about 30 percent of external sounds are consciously perceived, while the rest unconsciously fade out. When this filtering function works properly, it enables you to ignore some sounds. But when it is damaged, undesired sounds can be excessively amplified.

When hearing is intensely stimulated for a long time, it can result in a residual sensory perception even though the stimulating factor is long gone. So, it’s important to have your attention distracted away from the tinnitus in order to prevent a chronic manifestation.

Tinnitus sufferers most often cite stress as the cause of their condition. While it’s true noises are perceived more acutely when you are tense, there is no scientific basis for saying stress causes tinnitus. But the reverse is definitely true — hearing a constant noise in your ears can certainly cause stress and anxiety, and even lead to depression in some cases.

Each type of tinnitus has its own cause.

The following are the four types of tinnitus and their known contributing factors:

  • Subjective tinnitus is the most common type and accounts for 95 percent of cases. Only you can hear it and it’s usually caused by exposure to excessive noise. It can appear suddenly and may last three months (acute) to 12 months (subacute), or longer. Subjective tinnitus is often accompanied by hearing loss due to hair cell nerve damage. The severity of symptoms varies from patient to patient, and largely depends on your reaction to the noise.
  • Objective tinnitus is very rare. It can be heard by a doctor either using a stethoscope or by listening very closely to your ear. It occurs rarely and may due to involuntary muscle contractions or vascular deformities. The sound is often described as pulsating and may be heard in time with your heartbeat. Objective tinnitus usually has a determinable cause and disappears when treated by surgery or other medical intervention.
  • Neurological tinnitus is caused by a disorder such as Meniere’s disease that affects your neurological system. It is often accompanied by dizziness, vertigo, and balance issues. Unfortunately, there is no cure yet for Meniere’s disease, but your doctor may suggest medication to combat the symptoms.
  • Somatic tinnitus is caused, worsened, or otherwise related to your body’s own sensory system. Sensory signals coming from various parts of the body are disrupted, causing a spasm that produces tinnitus. Those who have somatic tinnitus usually have it in only one ear. Depending on the root cause your doctor may come up with treatment options to alleviate the symptoms.

Another known cause of tinnitus is taking ototoxic (“ear poisoning”) medications. Once dosages are reduced or stopped entirely, the noises also usually disappear. But certain medicines can cause irreparable damage, resulting in hearing loss and/or permanent tinnitus.

More than 50 percent of tinnitus sufferers have hearing loss.

Research shows a frequent correlation between tinnitus and hearing loss. Because tinnitus is perceived differently by each sufferer, an exact diagnosis is essential. A doctor may conduct ENT, dental, orthodontic, and orthopedic examinations in order to establish whether a case can be medically treated or not. The pitch and volume of tinnitus can be determined by special diagnostic test, and a hearing test can reveal whether hearing loss is also involved. Treatment with hearing aids is often the first step to relief from tinnitus. Hearing aids compensate for hearing loss, which enables concentration on external sounds instead of internal noises.

Additional physical and psychological conditions have been linked to tinnitus. Continue reading through this section for more information.

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