People who have it say it can be excruciating. Tinnitus causes pain and a constant ringing in the ears that makes it almost impossible to concentrate or enjoy a social gathering.
Worst of all, there's little they can do about it. There are treatments that can help, but no cure.
Now, neuroscientists at Georgetown University Medical Center and colleagues in Germany say they've discovered the brain condition that causes it. It's not a cure, but researchers say it is the first step toward finding one.
Writing in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, the scientists describe how the brain mechanisms that normally control noise and pain signals can become dysfunctional, leading to a distorted perception of these sensations.
Like an electrical engineer, they were able to trace the flow of these signals through the brain to where “circuit breakers” should be working — but aren’t.
Josef Rauschecker, a member of the German research team, says a brain injury sometimes scrambles the sensory apparatus. He says tinnitus can occur after the ears are damaged by loud noise. After the brain reorganizes itself, it continues to “hear” a constant hum or drum.
Meanwhile, chronic pain can occur from an injury that often is healed on the outside but persists inside the brain.
“Some people call these phantom sensations, but they are real, produced by a brain that continues to ‘feel’ the initial injury because it cannot down-regulate the sensations enough,” Rauschecker said. “Both conditions are extraordinarily common, yet no treatment gets to the root of these disorders.”
Key to a cure
The researchers believe the key to finding a cure for Tinnitus is repairing the brain's “circuit breakers,” restoring the brain's central gatekeeping system for control of perceptual sensations.
Doctors say people who have tinnitus may also complain of fatigue, stress, sleep problems, and anxiety.
You may be at higher risk of developing tinnitus if you are over 65 and male. Also, people exposed to loud noises for extended periods of time and those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have higher rates of tinnitus.
How do you know that ringing in your ears is tinnitus? The symptoms have been described as hearing sounds when no sound is present. The ringing may not actually be ringing at all, but more of a buzzing, hissing, or squealing. They may be low or high frequency sounds and interfere with your ability to concentrate.
If you think you are suffering from tinnitus, you should tell your doctor. They may request a medical history, conduct an exam, or run a series of tests. For starters, a doctor will likely check the ear itself to make sure there isn't a build-up of wax or a foreign object lodged in your ear canal.
Tell your doctor whether the noise you hear is constant or comes and goes. Does its frequency change, or does it rise and fall? If you suspect that you have age-related hearing loss, inform your doctor, since the two conditions are often related.
The doctor may order an audiogram (hearing test), an auditory brain stem response (ABR), or even an MRI. The purpose is not only to locate the cause but to rule out the presence of tumors.