New Research Reveals HIDDEN Cause of Tinnitus – Hidden Hearing Loss

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Tinnitus is a fairly common condition that affects roughly 50 million Americans of every age, gender, and background. Yet, there’s still a lot to be learned about tinnitus, how it affects patients, and what modern medicine has to offer. Many patients enter treatment for the ringing in their ears with the expectation of finding the cause of their tinnitus. Many end up with more questions than answers. 

Unless there’s a clear trigger like exposure to loud noise, head trauma, or certain medications, many leave with normal hearing results, and the cause of their condition usually remains unexplained. It’s also more likely that only the patient can hear the tinnitus sound, as is the case of subjective tinnitus. This is not only frustrating for healthcare professionals, but also the patients who have to live with the disruptive nature of tinnitus.

Researchers have found a correlation between hearing loss that won’t show up on a hearing test and tinnitus. What does this mean for people with tinnitus? Dr. Ben Thompson, AuD explains.

Perhaps the problem lies in the way we test for tinnitus. Did you know that many people with tinnitus have normal hearing test results? A new study published in 2023 suggests subtle changes in the auditory nerve that aren’t detected in standard hearing tests could hold the key to a potential cure. 

The researchers hypothesized that if medical professionals could pinpoint these areas of change, then it’s likely treating the affected cells could mean fewer, less severe tinnitus symptoms. Or, at the very least help patients understand why there’s a ringing or buzzing sound in their ear. 

"Treble Health helped me turn down the sound of my tinnitus. Now I can breathe, and get on with my life!"
"Treble Health helped me turn down the sound of my tinnitus. Now I can breathe, and get on with my life!"
– Elisa
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Using nearly 300 participants with good ear and overall health, the researchers were able to track the way sound traveled at each stage of the auditory process, from the ear to the brain. The comprehensive testing involved an examination of the muscles responsible for volume regulation near the ear drum, the cochlear nerve (responsible for transferring electrical signals from the cochlea to the brain), and the auditory nerve. This gives a better overall picture of ear health.

Woman getting an audiological evaluation

A standard hearing test lasts around 15 minutes and can take place in a clinic or at a Primary Care Physician’s (PCP) office. Though useful, it only inspects the eardrum, and cerumen (ear wax), and tests the patient’s ability to hear tones and speech sounds between 250 Hz and 8,000 Hz. This may prove insufficient, especially since these tests are not designed to measure the function of cochlear cells or hearing loss that occurs above 8000 Hz. Tinnitus patients with normal hearing tests may benefit more from specific/finite tests like high-frequency audiometry and otoacoustic emissions (OAEs).

In this particular study, patients either had no tinnitus, short-term tinnitus, or chronic tinnitus (tinnitus lasting more than 6 months). The researchers noticed that those with normal hearing who experienced chronic tinnitus had some sort of disruption in neural activity that was sent to the brain. At the opposite end, the signals that were received caused hyperactivity among the auditory neurons. 

This supports existing theories of tinnitus, where the brain compensates for a lack of auditory signals with a phantom ringing or buzzing sound. This is why you may have heard that tinnitus doesn’t come from the ear, it comes from the brain. It’s also why it’s usually not audible to your doctor during an examination.

The researchers were also able to establish a link between our internal volume control systems, i.e. our ear muscles and external cochlear hair cells, and tinnitus. When these systems malfunction, they too can cause the brain to become overactive, and create more tinnitus sounds. This may explain why many tinnitus patients with an unidentified cause to their condition could very well have a sort of hidden hearing loss

This study brings new hope for patients and tinnitus specialists alike. Access to advanced testing can mean greater understanding, new treatment plans, and a brighter future for tinnitus patients. Until this becomes standard practice for diagnosing and treating tinnitus patients with normal hearing loss, there’s still a high chance you will have to ask for these tests yourself. 

The next steps for the researchers in introducing these advanced hearing tests is to potentially treat tinnitus by regenerating the affected cells in the auditory system. We’re still a long way from successful human trials or a specific treatment. Luckily present tinnitus treatment therapies such as sound therapy devices, Tinnitus Retraining Therapy, and hearing have proven effective for many tinnitus patients. 

Managing Hearing Loss and Tinnitus With Treble Health

At Treble Health, our dedicated team of audiologists excels in tackling the unique challenges that accompany auditory health issues, including tinnitus. If you have any questions about hearing loss, tinnitus, or the relationship between the two, we encourage you to schedule a complimentary telehealth consultation with our team.

In this 20-minute Zoom session, our audiologists will evaluate your case, answer any questions you might have, and offer tailored advice to help reduce your tinnitus. We’re committed to a comprehensive approach, focusing on both the auditory symptoms and the underlying causes of hearing loss to deliver all-encompassing relief.

Living a long, full life with tinnitus is already possible, and ongoing research is pointing us in the right direction. Learn more about what the experts say about the future of tinnitus treatment, and how our team here at Treble Health can help you overcome your tinnitus today!

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