Ringing in the ears, also called tinnitus, can be a debilitating problem for the millions of people who suffer in the U.S. Some who are affected by tinnitus, however, do not suffer any major symptoms. Recent studies show that a person’s experience with tinnitus originates with the brain, not the ears.
One study from the University of Illinois found that sounds are processed differently in the brains of those with tinnitus than those without it. Even among people who have tinnitus, however, there are differences between how sound is processed in the brain.
Tinnitus is more a symptom than a disease in and of itself. Another trauma or condition may be the source of the symptom, which could stem from ototoxic medications or exposure to loud noise. It is important to understand more about the causes of tinnitus, because across America it is estimated that 25 million people are affected by it. Since there is no cure but only treatments that manage symptoms, understanding how to avoid or lessen its effects will prove useful for sufferers of tinnitus.
How Emotional Sounds Affect Tinnitus
Researchers have pinpointed changes in blood oxygen levels in the brain when exposed to different types of sounds. First they looked at the differences in sound processing between people with tinnitus compared to those without it. Sounds were introduced that were considered “pleasant” (children giggling), “unpleasant” (a baby crying) or “neutral” (a bottle being opened).
Areas of the Brain and Emotions
The study found brain engagement in different areas of the brain for emotion-triggering sounds for people with tinnitus than those without. They then took the study a step further and found that people who experience worse symptoms of tinnitus processed emotional sounds in different parts of the brain than those that described their symptoms as less severe.
This helps explain why some sufferers of tinnitus describe their symptoms as very severe and others say it doesn’t bother them at all. It shows that the severity of tinnitus can vary greatly from one person to the next because the level of distress caused by the symptoms varies.
Some people say tinnitus doesn’t affect their lives, and others report consequences such as irritability, mood swings, insomnia, anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts. The study showed that people who report less severe symptoms processed emotions primarily through the frontal lobe of the brain, while others processed emotions primarily in the amygdala portion of the brain.
Creating Treatment Options for Tinnitus
This research can help us to better understand why tinnitus causes more distress in some people than in others, and may lead to more effective treatment and therapy that can target the source of the distress.
Since hearing loss and tinnitus are often connected, visiting your audiologist when you begin to experience tinnitus symptoms may also help you to delay or prevent hearing damage. Sufferers of both tinnitus and hearing loss often find that hearing aids can also alleviate both issues.
Here at California Hearing Center we are committed to your hearing health. Call us today to set up an appointment for a hearing screening.