What Causes Tinnitus?
We’re still learning about what causes tinnitus. It can be hard to research tinnitus and develop new treatments because it’s such a varied condition. Although the exact cause of tinnitus remains unknown, we’re learning more about triggers and contributing factors.
Tinnitus can be caused by something that directly affect your ears or hearing or that affects you more broadly, like underlying medical conditions or common substances.
Tinnitus Causes Relating to Your Ears or Hearing
The most common cause of tinnitus is age-related hearing loss. Most people’s hearing worsens with age as the number of functioning nerve fibres in our ears declines.
Tinnitus can also be caused by:
- Loud noise. If you’ve ever watched your favourite band play live, you probably left with a short-lived episode of tinnitus. People who are regularly exposed to loud noises, such as musicians or construction workers, are at greater risk of developing tinnitus. Over time, loud noise damages the tiny hairs in your ears that send messages to your brain.
- Earwax. It usually does a vital job in keeping our ears healthy but, if earwax builds up and blocks your ear canal, it can irritate your eardrum, causing hearing loss and tinnitus.
- A perforated eardrum. There are many causes of a perforated eardrum, including an infection like otitis media, a sudden loud noise like an explosion, or trauma such as a direct blow to the head or ear, changes in air pressure while flying, or an injury during surgery.
- Eustachian tube dysfunction. Extreme weight loss, pregnancy or radiation therapy can sometimes keep the delicate tube that connects your middle ear to your upper throat permanently expanded, making your ear feel uncomfortably full.
Tinnitus Causes Relating to Medicines and Other Substances
Some everyday substances and medicines may have a side-effect of causing or worsening tinnitus. Usually this goes away when you stop taking the medication or cut down on the substance.
- Drugs that can cause tinnitus include:
- Nicotine, caffeine and alcohol
- Some antibiotics
- Some cancer medications
- High-dose aspirin
- Quinine (often used for malaria)
- Some diuretics (used to treat water retention).
Tinnitus Causes Relating to Underlying Medical Conditions
Your body’s systems are interwoven and delicately balanced. A health condition that primarily affects one part of your body may have surprising knock-on effects including tinnitus.
Conditions that are linked to tinnitus include:
- Disorders of the temporomandibular joint. This joint where your lower jawbone connects with your skull just in front of your ears on either side of your head.
- Cardiovascular problems that affect your blood flow, like high blood pressure or atherosclerosis.
- Neurological disorders including Meniere’s disease, multiple sclerosis or migraine headaches.
- Stress. This may be present at the onset of tinnitus and may also worsen existing tinnitus.
If you’re already dealing with one long-term health problem, it can be very hard to discover that you have tinnitus to deal with too. That really doesn’t seem fair!
Don’t underestimate your ability to adjust though. That’s called ‘habituation’. Many people find that their tinnitus bothers them a lot in the beginning but they gradually notice it less and less as they get used to managing it.
It’s also helpful to deliberately relax. That can seem strange at first but you might not be noticing how stressed you’ve become. Deliberate deep breathing can help to slow your body down bringing you some peace. Try to continue doing sports or hobbies that you usually enjoy — these things help you enjoy life.
Some people find tinnitus quite distressing, reporting that it interferes with sleep, concentration and their ability to enjoy life. Interestingly, this isn’t usually because their tinnitus is worse than another person’s. They experience tinnitus as stressful because they think about it in that way. They see it as something that is hopeless, isolating and inescapable and it becomes like that for them.
If that’s you, then consider getting some psychological help. Cognitive behavioural therapy is one psychological technique that helps people live with tinnitus more easily.
You can’t always prevent tinnitus, so don’t waste energy blaming yourself if you have it. But, if you’re worried about developing it, the best ways to avoid tinnitus are to:
- Protect your hearing. Turn down the volume on your music and use over-the-ear hearing protection if you’re around loud noises like firearms or heavy machinery. Be extra careful if you’re regularly exposed to high levels of noise.
- Protect your heart and blood vessels. Follow the usual advice about heart health such as eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly. This helps prevent pulsatile tinnitus by keeping your blood vessels healthy.