Can Tinnitus Be Painful?

woman suffering from tinnitus pain

Tinnitus can be a headache, but it usually isn’t painful. If you’re feeling pain while experiencing a ringing in your ears, the source of the discomfort usually isn’t tinnitus itself, but it can be a symptom of other painful medical conditions. Some of these conditions are easily managed – like a common ear infection – while others, like chronic pain, may be more difficult.

Tinnitus can be troublesome, but isn’t necessarily dangerous. Still, it’s a good idea to understand the relationship between tinnitus and pain to help rule out the possibility of a more serious underlying condition.

What Is Tinnitus?

In short, tinnitus is when the brain interprets the perception of sound when there is no external source. It’s sometimes described as hearing a ringing, buzzing, or humming sound. You may notice tinnitus in one or both ears, or it may be a vague sound “somewhere in your head.” Individual experiences vary greatly: it may come and go, or you may experience persistent tinnitus. It can vary in pitch, type, and volume. Some people experience pulsatile tinnitus, which is synced with your heartbeat and may be caused by high blood pressure or vascular issues.

"Treble Health helped me reduce my tinnitus by about 80%, and now I can live my life again!"
"Treble Health helped me reduce my tinnitus by about 80%, and now I can live my life again!"
– Steve D.
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Between 10 and 20% of people are bothered by tinnitus, and it’s often caused by hearing loss. For some people, it’s a minor nuisance, but for others, it can be distracting and disruptive to regular life. And for those experiencing other painful conditions, tinnitus tends to be even more noticeable. 

What is the Relationship Between Tinnitus and Pain?

When it comes to tinnitus and pain, it’s important to understand that one does not necessarily cause the other. However, some studies have discovered that the way the brain regulates pain signals is very similar to the way it processes tinnitus. The limbic system – the part of your brain that processes sensory input – may be involved. It’s not clear whether pain perception and tinnitus impact each other directly, but it may be that they are processed similarly in the brain.

We only have a limited understanding of these processes, and more research is required before we can pin down the true relationship between tinnitus and pain perception.

Learn more about the connection between pain and tinnitus with Dr. Michelle.

Which Painful Conditions are Associated with Tinnitus?

It’s possible to experience tinnitus without any other known health problems, but it can be a symptom of other – sometimes painful – conditions. Earaches, increased pain sensitivity, an ear disorder, hearing loss, and other factors can contribute to your perception of tinnitus.

Chronic Pain

Up to 40% of Americans suffer from some sort of chronic pain, defined as pain every day or most days for six consecutive months. Regardless of the cause, a recent study shows that people living with chronic pain are more than twice as likely to experience bothersome tinnitus.

Stress & Mental Health

There’s a significant, if complex, association between mental health and the relationship between tinnitus and pain.

Research suggests that perceived stress, depression, and coping strategies may play a role in the relationship between bothersome tinnitus and pain perception in some people. The relationship between psychological characteristics and perception of tinnitus and pain are complex, however, and it is not clear exactly how they all fit together.. 

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Hyperacusis (Sound Sensitivity)

Man with hyperacusis

Being sensitive to annoying or loud sounds is normal, but if you’re unable to tolerate everyday sounds at an average volume, you might be experiencing hyperacusis. Hyperacusis is defined as decreased sound tolerance, so common sounds seem very loud or even painful. Hyperacusis is thought to be related to changes in the central gain mechanism. This affects the way neural signals for sound are processed as they travel through the auditory nervous system to the brain.

Many people with tinnitus say they also experience hyperacusis. In fact, the majority of people with severe tinnitus notice hyperacusis.  

Earplugs can help cut down the level of sound reaching your ears, but this does not always help with hyperacusis, and these are generally not a long-term solution. Working with the audiologists at Treble Health can help you manage your response to these triggering sounds.

Noise Exposure

Exposure to loud, high-pitched, or sudden noises can be immediately painful, and it frequently triggers Exposure to tinnitus. Your ears are sophisticated organs, so the sharp spikes in vibration during loud noise exposure can damage your inner ear’s tiny hairs, the inner ear, or the middle ear. After trauma, hearing loss can be temporary or permanent, but the physical pain typically subsides with treatment.

You can protect yourself from dangerously loud noises or high pitched sounds by wearing good ear protection and avoiding these sounds whenever possible. Wearing earplugs or noise-canceling headphones and avoiding loud machinery and loud music will help protect your hearing. 

Jaw Pain

Temporomandibular joint disorders – commonly called TMJ – are known for causing pain when you chew or talk, and can also contribute to tinnitus. TMJ is usually caused by grinding your teeth or as a result of mouth injuries, arthritis, or jaw misalignment. TMJ makes it painful or awkward to open and close your mouth or chew, and most people notice a clicking or popping sound. Because this joint is very close to your ear, these strained, sprained, or inflamed joints and ligaments can aggravate tinnitus. Studies show that people with TMJ problems are more likely to suffer from tinnitus – up to 60% of people with TMJ experience a ringing in their ears. 

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Tooth Pain

Toothaches can also lead to tinnitus. Dental problems like cavities, infections, or impacted wisdom teeth can add to mouth and jaw pain that radiates up to the ears. If that’s the case for you, talk to your dentist for prompt treatment.

Illness and Infections

Man with a cold

Everyone’s had a head cold, and for some people, that unpleasant congestion can lead to tinnitus. Sore throats, stuffy sinuses, and upper respiratory infections can put uncomfortable pressure on your ears. Other physical issues like swimmer’s ear or excessive earwax buildup can be uncomfortable and trigger tinnitus, too. Fortunately, most of these issues are easy to treat. With proper medical treatment, ear pain and the associated tinnitus may clear up quickly.


If you suffer from seasonal allergies, you’re probably very familiar with the pressure stuffy sinuses can put on your ears. They can feel itchy, swollen, and yes, allergies can trigger tinnitus. This congestion can interfere with your perception of sound, which makes tinnitus more noticeable. If you know allergies are to blame, treating your sinus symptoms will typically relieve both pain and tinnitus.


Concussions or any trauma to the head or neck can cause a ringing in your ears or hearing loss. After a head injury, the perception of tinnitus is common. Head injuries can be very serious medical conditions even beyond tinnitus, so if you have had a head or neck injury, don’t wait – seek medical help right away.

What Can You Do About Pain with Tinnitus?

The perception of tinnitus is complex. Even though tinnitus itself doesn’t cause pain, you may notice increased pain alongside the perception of tinnitus. Thankfully, if you’re experiencing tinnitus with or without pain, you can seek management.

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Proper Evaluation

First, contact your physician or audiologist to find the cause of your pain. Rule out underlying medical causes, as some health issues – like head or neck injuries – can be serious medical conditions. Other health conditions, like dental problems, illnesses, and infections, are medically treatable and you may be able to resolve both pain and tinnitus at the same time. 

Hearing Test

After you’ve ruled out any underlying medical causes, it’s time to get a hearing test. You might have hearing loss and not even realize it, and further tests may be necessary. Your doctor can help you determine the extent of your hearing loss, if any.

Management Techniques

Regardless of the source, mindfulness and counseling are good ways to understand and manage the way you react to stress, hearing loss, and tinnitus. Prioritizing mental wellness and minimizing stress are key to managing your tinnitus. There are also other options, such as sound therapy, that can be useful in reducing and managing the perception of tinnitus. Something as simple as a sound generator, like a white noise machine, can help to reduce the perception of tinnitus, and help the brain to focus on something else.

Explore techniques to help reduce tinnitus and contact the audiologists at Treble Health for tinnitus counseling to help you understand the relationship between your pain and response to tinnitus. 

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