What is Tinnitus?

Tinnitus is a symptom that begins with more or less strong ringing, buzzing, hissing, roaring, whistling, or ticking in one or both ears. In most cases, tinnitus noises develop independently of a source; in other words, other people cannot hear them. If the condition lasts for longer than three months, one speaks of “chronic tinnitus.” It can affect a person's whole perception of the world and make the patient's life unbearable. In Germany there are well over eleven million people suffering.

Where does tinnitus develop?

As a rule, the cause is not a disease of the ear but a psychoacoustic phenomenon, in brief the faulty processing of acoustic signals in the brain. These malfunctions are triggered by damage to auditory sensory cells in the inner ear, which in turn causes ions to flow uncontrollably into these damaged cells and trigger "overexcitation" here. This in turn causes an increased release of messenger substances (neurotransmitters), whereby so-called "potentials" constantly arise in the auditory pathway, which can be interpreted by the brain as tinnitus.

Chronic tinnitus develops through a learning process of the auditory pathway: The ear noise is stored as a pattern after sufficiently long exposure to the processing brain areas and remains there as an independent signal. Afterwards, it does not matter whether the original trigger disappears or not.

But what brings on tinnitus?

There are as many causes as there are forms and effects. In any case, patients need thorough medical examination, for example by an ear, nose and throat specialist, neurologist, internist, and/or orthopaedist. Only then can physical causes be excluded such as Menière's disease (a disorder of the inner ear), a constriction of the major cervical vessels, wear of the cervical vertebrae, disorders of the mandibular joint, as well as a range of internal diseases such as diabetes, lipometabolic disorders, and high blood pressure. Tinnitus very often results from damage to the inner ear caused by an acute noise, blast or explosion trauma. This can lead to irreparable damage to the inner and outer hair cells in the cochlea. It is assumed that strong mental pressure such as stress at school or in the workplace can give rise to tinnitus.

Since the number of tinnitus patients is steadily increasing and every fourth sufferer complains of a rapid decline in the quality of life, it is extremely important to step up and intensify research into the causes of the disorder and new methods of treatment.