Can EMF Trigger Tinnitus Symptoms?

Power lines going across a field

The permanent presence of electromagnetic fields (EMF) in modern life has influenced many people who experience chronic illness and other health conditions to evaluate different electromagnetic waves and how they may or may not interact with the human body. EMF exposure has been tied to a host of concerns and conditions, and research has continued to lag behind concerns regarding electromagnetic radiation and how it impacts human health. From cell phones to WiFi, to radios and towering power lines, EMF exposure is virtually impossible to avoid. Is tinnitus a condition that can be tied to EMF exposure or EMF radiation? First, let’s take a close look at what exactly falls under this heading.

What Is EMF?

The term “EMF” is used to describe electric and magnetic fields or electromagnetic fields. These fields are invisible areas of concentrated energy (often referred to as radiation) that are associated with the use of electrical power and lighting, whether that lighting is natural (think lightning) or man-made. The term is usually divided into two categories, according to the frequencies they contain. These categories include:

  • Non-ionizing EMFs. Non-ionizing electromagnetic fields are those that contain low-level radiation. These fields are typically perceived as harmless or low-risk to humans, when they experience exposure to electromagnetic frequencies in these ranges. Devices that fall into this type of electromagnetic radiation include:
    • Cell phones and mobile phones
    • Radio frequency
    • Bluetooth
    • Wireless Internet (including Hotspots)
    • Televisions
    • Computers
    • Microwaves
    • MRI Machines
    • Power Lines
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  • Ionizing EMFs. Ionizing EMFs include high-level radiation which has the potential for cellular and DNA damage. This type of electromagnetic radiation includes the radiation found in reactors, and in close proximity to electrical plants, without proper equipment. Devices and waves that fall under the umbrella of “ionizing” include:
    • X-RAYs
    • UV Rays/Sunlight
    • Gamma Rays

How Can Electromagnetic Exposure Affect Our Bodies?

Electromagnetic field exposure is inevitable; because most people are tied to their cell phones, countless public places offer wifi, and even rural areas are dotted with power lines, it is virtually impossible to avoid or completely eradicate electromagnetic field exposure. That being said, there are different levels of electromagnetic field exposure, and these different levels are typically considered the defining factor between harm caused by EMF radiation, and safety exposure levels. Let’s take a look at some of the ways ionizing and non-ionizing magnetic field exposure impacts human health.

Woman sitting with her hand resting on her face

Exposure to electromagnetic radiation derived from ionizing sources can impact DNA and cellular structure, effectively damaging the body. This can be seen in individuals who experience an onset of cancer, dementia, or other health issues following a direct exposure to an ionizing electromagnetic field. This type of exposure to electromagnetic radiation is highly uncommon, and differs greatly from incremental electromagnetic field exposure, as might be the case when using a phone, or lighting at home.

Non-ionizing EMF exposure is currently considered safe and harmless to human populations. Nevertheless, a small population of people report electromagnetic hypersensitivity, or various bodily symptoms when any type of EMF exposure is present. These individuals may also report multiple chemical sensitivity or an inability to process or endure exposure to a host of different chemicals.

Exposure to electromagnetic fields has also been linked to a variety of different, unspecific health complaints interfering with daily living. These complaints include things such as dizziness, fatigue, headache, hearing loss, sleep disorders, and more. Although large numbers of studies have been conducted to investigate the possible health impacts of EMF exposure, a clear relationship has not been identified or established. Most studies were unable to demonstrate the presence of a relationship between EMF exposure and harm, even in those who consider themselves electromagnetic hypersensitive patients.

Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity

Despite being reportedly non-harmful, some people persistently report electromagnetic hypersensitivity, particularly to EMF exposure that occurs every day. This might occur during consistent use of cell phones (or mobile phones), computers, or even when electrical appliances are being used in close proximity.

Symptoms of electromagnetic hypersensitivity typically include some or all of the following:

  • Headache and migraines
  • Fatigue and sleep disturbances
  • Skin-based symptoms like pricking, burning, and a high incidence of rashes
  • Muscle pain and aches
  • Hearing loss or changes, including tinnitus related alterations to hearing

This is just a short list of the issues people who claim subjective electromagnetic hypersensitivity share, there are countless other related perception disorders and concerns the electromagnetic hypersensitive suffer from, many of them directly related to the senses and brain function, like tinnitus. For people with sensitivity to EMFs, the ill health ascribed to EMFs is only relieved by removal from electromagnetic fields. 

Tinnitus Patients And Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity

In one study, researchers discovered that tinnitus and electromagnetic hypersensitivity appeared to be linked, though the exact nature of the link remained uncertain. In the study, tinnitus patients were examined against electromagnetic hypersensitive patients, and it was determined that tinnitus and electromagnetic hypersensitivity patients more commonly found comorbidities than either condition was alone.

In that same study, the ties between electromagnetic hypersensitivity and tinnitus patients was assumed to be at least partially related to an elevated stress response. Subjective electromagnetic hypersensitive patients have not been shown to consistently detect the presence of electromagnetic fields, but tinnitus patients report a greater sensitivity, leading some researchers to conclude that mental health and central nervous system excitability were potentially involved for both subjective electromagnetic hypersensitive people and tinnitus patients.

What does this mean, exactly? Essentially, what these randomized clinical trials suggest is that hearing loss and subjectively electromagnetic hypersensitive people have external and internal perceptions that are the result of a stress response from the autonomic nervous system (think: fight or flight reflex), which can result in disturbed sleep and may lead people to report tinnitus, even in the absence of earlier symptoms.

Potential Treatments For Tinnitus And Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity

Because EMF exposure has not been linked to health conditions definitively, apart from ionizing radiation, there are not currently dedicated treatments for electromagnetic hypersensitivity, apart from the avoidance of cell phones and other potential triggers. 

Potential interventions for perceived electrical hypersensitivity and EMF exposure based tinnitus may include the following:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT). Because people who present earlier symptoms of tinnitus or harm caused by EMF exposure are more likely to report these issues, there is some speculation that perceived electrical hypersensitivity and tinnitus can be managed through mental health services. CBT focuses on the connection between how we feel, think, and behave. TRT also uses methods to address our psychological and physical reactions, with the addition of sound therapy.  By selectively listening to white noise or other agreed-upon sounds, you can limit the sensations associated with electromagnetic fields. These can be delivered via mobile phones or hearing aids.
  • Avoidance of triggers. Loud noises can cause tinnitus symptoms, and there are those who have suggested that EMFs can penetrate exposed tissues. To combat these issues, people with tinnitus can avoid the EMF radiation linked to headphones by using speakerphone to avoid holding mobile phones too close to the head, and use styluses and other tools to limit direct skin contact exposure to electromagnetic fields.

Do Electromagnetic Fields Cause Tinnitus?

Diagram of head with branches coming out

Subjectively electromagnetic hypersensitive subjects in research studies have been found to demonstrate higher tinnitus prevalence than the general population. The occurrence of tinnitus was not directly linked to electromagnetic field exposure in the studies or a definitive issue within the inner ear. Thus, it is believed that these individuals may have sensitivities of the nervous system, rather than measurable changes in response to electromagnetic radiation.

According to the research studies that have been conducted on the auditory system, electromagnetic hypersensitivity, and electromagnetic fields in general, there is no way to consistently link tinnitus, electromagnetic hypersensitivity, and measurable symptoms in the body. Treatments for electromagnetic hypersensitive patients and treatment for tinnitus patients, then, typically focus more on supporting the general health and wellness of patients suffering from symptoms of these conditions.

From CBT to sound therapy, any perceived response to an electromagnetic field is treated as an issue of nervous system or even autoimmune dysfunction, along with mental health. Patients are encouraged to employ the coping mechanisms that most effectively suit their needs. This may mean enlisting the help of an audiologist to improve tinnitus symptoms, or limiting mobile phone use or avoiding any other triggers. While it cannot be said that EMF exposure causes tinnitus or any other symptoms, crossover between the two conditions does suggest the value of mental health interventions for both.

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