If you have experienced ringing in your ears before, you understand how downright annoying it can be. This ringing is called Tinnitus, and it comes from the Latin term “tinnire” meaning to ring. In fact, over 50 million adults are affected by Tinnitus. Did you know 15% to 20% of the population is affected by Tinnitus at one point or another? Tinnitus can also affect children and adolescents.
If you are suffering from Tinnitus, you probably want to understand how to get rid of it. We are going to take a deep dive into Tinnitus for you here. We will explore the possible causes of Tinnitus and what the risk factors are. We will discuss possible complications resulting from Tinnitus. We will reveal different treatment options. Finally, we will talk about whether your stiff neck and Tinnitus might be related, and if so, what you can do to alleviate it.
What is Tinnitus?
First, we are going to give you a better understanding of Tinnitus. Tinnitus is when you experience ringing or other various sounds in one or both of your ears. You might be aware of this sound when you’re trying to sleep at night or when there is little background noise. Usually, the sound is subjective, meaning you are the only one who can hear it. We will get into objective Tinnitus a little later.
While most Tinnitus cases are fairly mild but still pretty annoying, some people experience Tinnitus as a very loud noise. And this noise interferes with their ability to concentrate. In either case, you may experience Tinnitus all of the time, or it may show up periodically.
Tinnitus may present itself as a whooshing sound or a rhythmic pulsing that keeps in time with your heartbeat in some unusual cases. This is called Pulsatile Tinnitus. In this case, the sound is objective -- meaning your doctor may be able to hear it when he/she does an exam. In fewer than 1% of Tinnitus cases, the sound is objective and may be caused by musculoskeletal or cardiovascular movements in the person’s body.
What Causes Tinnitus?
Up to 90% of the people with Tinnitus have experienced hearing loss due to noise (hearing aids can help). Loud noises can cause lasting damage to the Cochlea. The Cochlea is a spiral-shaped organ in the inner ear. Pilots, rock-musicians, street-repair workers, and landscapers are all at risk professionally for Tinnitus. Also, people who regularly listen to loud music, use chain-saws or guns may be at increased risk.
The Cochlea contains tiny, delicate hairs that move when the ear receives sound waves. Electrical signals are triggered along the nerve from your ear to the brain due to this movement. Your brain then interprets these sounds signals. Sometimes, as we age or are repeatedly exposed to loud sounds, these little hairs in the Cochlea can become bent or broken. Random electrical impulses are then allowed to leak into your brain and cause Tinnitus.
Sometimes a common ear infection or ear blockage might be what is causing your Tinnitus. If your ear canal becomes blocked with a buildup of fluid, dirt, earwax, or other foreign materials, this blockage can change the pressure in your ear and cause Tinnitus.
Your medications might be causing or exacerbating your Tinnitus as well. Medications that might be the culprit include certain antibiotics, water pills (diuretics), antimalarial drugs, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and antidepressants. Often, the unwanted noise in your ears will disappear when you stop using these drugs.
Head and neck trauma may be to blame for your Tinnitus too. Typically, these injuries will cause Tinnitus in only one ear. We will drill down on Tinnitus caused by head and neck injuries a little later in this article.
These are also a host of less common causes of Tinnitus. These include:
What are the Risk Factors for Tinnitus?
Age is definitely a risk factor for Tinnitus. Most cases present themselves in individuals over 50. Indeed, if you have had exposure to loud noises, this places you at higher risk. Your gender also plays a factor in your risk. Men are more likely to experience Tinnitus than women. The use of alcohol and tobacco places you at an increased risk. And a history of certain health problems like cardiovascular issues, high blood pressure, obesity, arthritis, and a head injury all increase your risk for Tinnitus.
What are the Complications Related to Tinnitus?
First, it’s important to understand that Tinnitus does not cause additional hearing loss. The complications of Tinnitus are the result of the havoc the annoying (and sometimes debilitating) sounds can wreak on your life. These complications might include a common headache, fatigue, insomnia, stress, poor concentration, memory struggles, anxiety and irritability, depression, and problems with work and family life.
How is Tinnitus Treated?
The first step in treating Tinnitus is exploring the possibility of an underlying cause. If an ear infection or other blockage is suspected, this will need to be treated promptly. Your physician might also suggest you discontinue any ototoxic medications. Your doctor can administer treatment for TMJ if it is to blame.
If there isn’t an immediately identifiable underlying cause, your doctor will likely suggest a hearing exam. During the hearing exam, you will be asked to indicate whether you hear specific sounds in each ear. Your results will then be compared to the normal results of other people your age to see if you might be experiencing some hearing damage.
Your physician might also check your movement and see if your Tinnitus changes as a result of these movements. He/she might ask you to move your neck, arms, and legs, move your eyes, and clench your jaw. This step may help identify some underlying causes of the ringing in your ears.
Your doctor may also order an imaging test like a CT scan or MRI, depending on the suspected causes. Your doctor may administer lab tests to look for thyroid problems, anemia, heart disease, or vitamin deficiencies. Depending on what is causing your Tinnitus, your doctor might offer the following treatments:
You might also benefit from using a white noise machine to help suppress the noise at night. A white noise machine is a device that produces calming noises like the ocean waves, hard rain, or wind blowing through the trees. You can also find apps on your phone which offer white noise. You can also wear a masking device to help suppress the sound. The masking device resembles a hearing aid and creates a low-level white noise to dampen Tinnitus sounds.
In some cases, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or other forms of counseling like Tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT) might be suggested. TRT is administered by an audiologist and offers help in the form of a combination of sound masking and counseling. This treatment may help you notice your Tinnitus less over time and assist you with any distress you might be feeling.
What is the Link Between Neck Pain and Tinnitus?
As mentioned before, issues with your neck could definitely be causing your Tinnitus. Whether your neck pain is from trauma to your head and neck, other issues with your neck, or TMJ, Tinnitus could be the result. Frequently, Tinnitus and neck pain go hand-in-hand. If you suffer from Tinnitus and feel the cause is not readily identifiable, you should seek out an examination of your upper neck. In fact, it is possible that issues with the neck cause one third of all Tinnitus cases.
To understand this connection a little better, we are going to unpack a little anatomy for you. The Atlas bone or C1 vertebra is the top bone of the neck. This bone is located right at the base of the skull. This bone is positioned directly between the jaw joints and the ears. If anything is even slightly misaligned, everything in this area of the body can be affected. This is why ear and jaw problems are often linked and why many who suffer from these issues also have neck pain.
The actual structure of the ear can be affected by a misaligned atlas. For example, let’s take a look at the Eustachian tubes. These tubes’ roll is to drain away excess fluid from the ears to prevent harm to the ears. If the tube function is suppressed, due to a misalignment, fluid can build up in the ear canal and cause Tinnitus. Here you can see how while the ringing in the ears may have been caused by fluid buildup, the problems originated in the neck.
Head and neck injuries, which cause upper neck misalignment, are often to blame for Tinnitus. It’s common for people who experience whiplash, a concussion, or other head and neck injury to experience Tinnitus after the trauma. The joints in your neck may not be moving correctly because your upper cervical spine has been injured. Once this misalignment is treated through correction of the upper cervical spine, the Tinnitus often goes away.
Hopefully, we have given you a pretty thorough understanding of Tinnitus here. If you have been suffering from Tinnitus, we encourage you to look for potential causes and seek the appropriate treatment. If you are struggling to find the cause of your Tinnitus, you should definitely explore the possibility of upper cervical misalignment and the role it might be playing in your ears. You may no longer have to suffer the annoying effects of Tinnitus if your neck issues are corrected.