Is Tinnitus Hereditary?

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Do your parents experience tinnitus? How about your other relatives? If tinnitus seems to run in your family, you might be noticing an inherited trait. New research suggests that for some people, tinnitus may be a hereditary condition.

What Is A Hereditary Condition?

Your genes play a role in every part of your body and its function, from the color of your hair to the size of your feet. But it’s not just your appearance that’s impacted by your genes – health conditions can be inherited, too.

Hereditary refers to any trait that is passed on from a parent to a child through genetic material. Depending on your genetic makeup, you may be more likely to have certain health conditions if your parents or other relatives have them, too. Today, researchers are very interested in identifying which health conditions are related to our genes, and how. 

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Researchers look at human chromosomes – structures that carry genetic information in our cells – to find significant locations, or loci, on these structures. These loci can indicate heritable components, or genetic factors, some of which might be key to discovering why people experience tinnitus, and to what extent. 

Genetic Studies on Tinnitus

Tinnitus is the perception of sound when no external source is present. Some people describe it as a buzzing, humming, or ringing in one or both ears. The intensity and type of tinnitus can vary greatly, depending on the person experiencing it. It’s not contagious, but research suggests it could be inherited.

Exploring the Potential Heritability of Tinnitus

Tinnitus was thought to be only a secondary condition  – a symptom or complication of another health condition. But tinnitus can occur without any other known symptoms or related health problems. Recently, research has explored the potential hereditary aspect of tinnitus, and the results have been fascinating.

So far, the results from recent research on genetic contributions to tinnitus don’t confirm that tinnitus is determined by your genes, but there are interesting correlations. The presence or level of disturbance you experience from tinnitus can still depend on other environmental factors, like loud noise exposure or injuries. These studies suggest that there may be a genetic basis for your experience with tinnitus. 

  • One study from 2020 explored a large sample of genomes and found 8 genes associated with tinnitus. Although there’s clearly a genetic link to tinnitus in some cases, these findings confirm that environmental factors and other health conditions do play a significant role in the manifestation of tinnitus.
  • A study in 2022 found 19 loci that may be associated with tinnitus. This study also found that 15 loci may be linked to tinnitus-related distress, or the negative mental and emotional impact of tinnitus. These findings suggest that there could be some common genes associated with tinnitus, tinnitus-related distress, and psychiatric conditions, cardiovascular diseases, and metabolic conditions.

Genetic researchers often turn to twins, siblings, and adoptees to determine if conditions are more likely inherited or caused by environmental factors. 

  • A 2019 study examined adoptees with tinnitus to see if their adoptive family or biological family history with tinnitus had any relationship to their experiences with tinnitus. This study found that there was a greater risk for having tinnitus in the adoptee if at least one biological parent had tinnitus, but not if their adoptive parents did. 
  • Identical twins share the same genes and fraternal twins share approximately half the same genes. Knowing this, a Swedish study from 2017 explored genetic contributions to tinnitus in identical and fraternal twins to look for any genetic variation related to tinnitus. They found that bilateral tinnitus (that is, tinnitus experienced in both ears) was found more often in identical twins than fraternal twins. The study also found that bilateral tinnitus occurred more often in men and women under age 40. This suggests that it could be closely related to genes which are shared by identical twins rather than from environmental factors, and that it may be sex-specific.
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Other Hereditary Conditions That Can Lead to Tinnitus 

Tinnitus often occurs as a symptom of another condition, and some of those conditions are hereditary, too. 

  • Otosclerosis is a frequently-inherited disease that affects the bones in the middle ear. Ear bone changes are a normal part of aging, but with otosclerosis, these changes can lead to tinnitus and hearing loss.
  • Meniere’s disease can be hereditary in some cases. This condition is characterized by persistent tinnitus, dizzy spells, and hearing loss. 
  • Frequent inner ear infections are another common condition that can impact your hearing and lead to tinnitus. Some people are more likely to develop inner ear infections than the general population, and studies show that this can be inherited, too.

Environmental Factors Impacting Tinnitus

Of course, tinnitus isn’t exclusively hereditary. There are other known causes of tinnitus, not just genetic predisposition. Some of the most common outside causes of tinnitus include:  

  • Hearing loss. Up to 90% of all tinnitus cases are related to hearing loss, and it’s the leading cause of bothersome tinnitus. 
  • Natural changes from aging. As we age, our hearing and response to sound can change, making tinnitus more noticeable.
  • Exposure to loud noise. Prolonged exposure to loud, high pitched, or sudden sounds is often preventable. Protect your hearing from loud noises and avoid these sounds if you can.
  • Blockage of the ear canal. Ear infections or wax build up that blocks the ear canal can cause hearing problems and lead to tinnitus.
  • Head injuries. Among other serious health impacts, injuries to the head or neck can cause long or short term tinnitus.
  • Jaw, mouth, or neck issues. Temporomandibular joint issues (TMJ for short) are well-known for causing tinnitus thanks to inflammation. Dental problems or neck issues can trigger tinnitus as well.
  • Chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Your inner ear function depends on good blood flow and a healthy blood pressure, so heart disease can cause hearing changes. With diabetes, high blood sugar levels can affect nerves in your ears and damage tiny blood vessels, which can lead to hearing loss and tinnitus.
  • Side effects of medication. Tinnitus is sometimes listed as a side effect of certain medications because they can damage your ears. Medications that are known to cause inner ear cell damage are called ototoxic.
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Can You Directly Inherit tinnitus?

Studies suggest that while it may be possible to inherit tinnitus, other medical conditions and environmental factors have a significant impact on your perception of the ringing in your ears.

There may be multiple genes and locations in chromosomes that are related to the existence of tinnitus and tinnitus-related distress. These conditions appear to have a complex relationship with our genetic factors, and new research is promising in helping to identify what causes tinnitus or predisposes an individual to tinnitus.

Regardless of the reason you’re experiencing tinnitus, the audiologists at Treble Health can help you manage your symptoms and discover effective treatments for tinnitus. 

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