We don’t know what causes tinnitus in all cases, but we know it is often linked to hearing loss and some other ear-related conditions.
But this is not the whole story, because some people with tinnitus do not have hearing loss, and many people with hearing loss don’t have tinnitus.
Sometimes, but uncommonly, tinnitus can be linked to other medical conditions:
- head or neck injuries
- cardiovascular disorders, especially high blood pressure
- metabolic disorders including hypothyroidism and diabetes
- certain medications that are used to treat serious illnesses such as cancer.
For some people, tinnitus doesn’t appear to be linked to any particular cause.
Tinnitus and hearing loss
Many people with tinnitus also have hearing loss. We don’t know exactly why this is but it’s thought that a temporary or permanent change to the hearing system can cause someone to experience tinnitus.
When we hear, sound waves travel through the outer and middle ear to the hearing organ in the inner ear, known as the cochlea.
The cochlea is lined with thousands of tiny sound-sensing cells called hair cells. These hair cells change the sound waves into electrical signals. The hearing nerve then sends these electrical signals to the hearing part of the brain, which analyses them and recognises them as sound.
When part of the ear or hearing nerve becomes damaged or doesn’t work properly, this reduces the number of electrical signals usually sent to the brain. Research has shown that the hearing part of the brain then ‘fills in the gaps’ of the sounds that are expected to come from the ear. This could create the sensation of sound that we know as tinnitus.
Find out about causes of hearing loss here.
What’s more, if you have hearing loss, you may be more aware of tinnitus. This is because you won’t hear as many environmental sounds that could otherwise help distract you from it. In this case, using hearing aids or, in more severe cases, cochlear implants, may help with both hearing loss and tinnitus.
Stress and tinnitus
There’s a known link between stress and tinnitus. Any source of stress can be a trigger for tinnitus, or make it worse. And some people, though not all, find that tinnitus makes them feel stressed and anxious. These feelings aren’t always caused by tinnitus, but they can be made worse by it.
So a vicious circle develops: stress makes tinnitus worse, which leads to greater stress and anxiety. There are tinnitus therapies specifically designed to help break this cycle.
If you think you have hearing loss, you can take our free online hearing check. It takes up to 3 minutes and will suggest whether your hearing is in a normal range or whether you may have hearing loss.