Tinnitus & Chronic Pain

After being exposed to loud sounds that damage your hearing, you may experience a reoccurring sensation of ringing or buzzing in the ears – a sensation that cannot be accounted for by actual sounds. Recent research shows that this “ringing” phenomenon (called tinnitus) is very similar to episodes of chronic pain that reoccur after an injury has healed.

A team of researchers from the Georgetown University Medical Center and the Technische Universität München, a research university in Munich, Germany, published a study in the medical journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences that identify a single brain dysfunction that contributes to both tinnitus and chronic pain.

The research established that certain brain structures such as the nucleus accumbens, anterior cingulate cortex, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex serve as “gatekeeper[s]” to control noise, pain, and emotional signals. When these structures do not function properly, unwanted signals are sent throughout the brain.

The brains of people who suffer from tinnitus and the brains of people who suffer from chronic pain have similar and measurable neural activities. This suggests that while there may not be actual sound or pain, the brain receives “phantom” signals nonetheless. This results in the individual experiencing sound or pain even if there is no “real” sound or pain.

After a noise-induced hearing injury, the brain attempts to “reorganize and make the person hear as well as possible, but the side effect is that tinnitus noise is generated,” says Rauschecker, one of the authors of the study. In tinnitus, noise signals are sent by the gatekeepers to the auditory cortex, which is perceived as ringing (even though there are no sounds being picked up by the ears).

Although researchers do not yet understand how these neural structures become broken, more research in this area could lead to improved treatment of tinnitus and chronic pain. The authors of the study say that “progress in understanding central gating mechanisms might provide a new impetus to the therapy of tinnitus and chronic pain.” For now, Rauschecker suggests turning down the volume and steering clear of loud noises.

Related Posts