If you have ever experienced ringing in your ears, you have experienced tinnitus. Tinnitus is an issue that can cause annoyance, inconvenience and even pain for the millions of people affected. Some people, however, do not have very noticeable symptoms. It turns out people can have different experiences with tinnitus, and these experiences don’t originate in the ears but in the brain.

The University of Illinois conducted a study which concluded that in the brains of people with tinnitus, sounds are handled differently than those that don’t have it. Even amongst people who experience tinnitus there are variations in the processing of sound by the brain.

What is Tinnitus?

Tinnitus itself is not a disease: it is a symptom. Tinnitus can have various causes, including exposure to loud noise or use of ototoxic medications. It is estimated that 25 million people are affected tinnitus across the United States. Tinnitus has no cure and can only be managed, so it becomes important to understand how to lessen the effects of tinnitus or prevent it altogether.

Tinnitus and Your Emotions

Research has demonstrated that blood oxygen levels in the brain can change when exposed to varying kinds of noise. The researchers observed variances in sound processing between people without tinnitus and to people with it. “Pleasant” sounds, such as the laughter of children, were introduced, as well as “unpleasant” and “neutral” sounds.

Emotions and the Brain

It was discovered that for people with tinnitus, different areas of the brain showed differing levels of engagement for sounds that triggered emotion than for people without tinnitus. Taking the study a step further, researchers found that people who complain of worse tinnitus symptoms processed emotional noise in different parts of the brain than the people who labeled their symptoms less severe.

This could help explain why some tinnitus sufferers describe the symptoms as severe while others say tinnitus doesn’t bother them at all. This demonstrates that the severity of tinnitus can differ from one person to the next because the symptoms distress some people more than others.

Some people report irritability, insomnia, mood swings, depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts as a result of tinnitus, while others say it is a minor annoyance or it doesn’t bother them at all. People who report less severe symptoms tend to process emotions through the brain’s frontal lobe. Others tend to process emotions in the brain’s amygdala.

Tinnitus Treatment Options

This research helps us to better understand why tinnitus is more distressing in some people than in others, and may lead to more effective treatment and treatment that can target the source of this anguish.

Tinnitus is often connected with hearing loss, so visiting your audiologist when you begin to experience symptoms could help delay or prevent hearing loss. Hearing aids may also offer some relief to both sufferers of both tinnitus and hearing loss. 

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