Maybe you have experienced tinnitus more than once in your life. But, did you know that this symptom can be caused by many conditions? Well, in this article we will explain you how neck problems, like a cervical spine misalignment, can affect your earing and cause tinnitus.
Experts define tinnitus as the abnormal perception of sounds in the absence of external acoustic stimuli. It is caused by many conditions, including non-audiology stimuli (especially a hyperactivity of the somatosensory system). Now you can understand why approximately 10 to 17% of the world population experiences it at least once in life.
Statistics also show that at least a third of North Americans who are 55 or older experience this symptom more often than they wish and, unfortunately, most of the time their doctors are not able to offer a definite or long-lasting solution.
Generally speaking, any stimuli capable of producing an excessive or abnormal stimulation of the somatosensorial system (more frequent, 65% of all cases), the somatomotor system or even the visual–motor system, can trigger tinnitus. However, the physiopathology of this symptoms is not so simple, and to really understand how can neck problems cause tinnitus, we must understand it in depth.
The neck and the ear have an anatomic relationship because neck muscles are directly connected with the cochlea and the cochlear nucleus. The cochlear nucleus is the area which integrates and processes the information from the ventral cochlear nucleus (or VCN), the dorsal cochlear nucleus (or DCN) and the nerves which transmit the motor and sensory information from the neck region (proprioceptive and nociceptive nerves). So, neck problems can cause tinnitus because the cochlear nucleus can interpret any stimuli in one of those systems as a "sound".
The stimuli that can cause an abnormal cochlear nucleus stimulation include a generalized contracture of the muscles on the head, neck and upper limbs, ocular movements, direct pressure over some facial spots (also known as myofascial trigger points), and even movements of the fingers or touch. You must also know that those stimuli do not only trigger the tinnitus, but they can also alter its loudness and pitch.
On the other hand, some studies have suggested that certain stimuli disinhibit the cochlear nucleus, which induces an excitatory activity within the auditory pathway and, consequently, tinnitus. So, now you can give an answer to the question: can neck problems cause tinnitus? And you can also understand how it can happen.
Diagnosing tinnitus is difficult because it is a subjective symptom, which means that the patient feels it, but the doctor can't see it or measure it. Your doctor will ask about a previous history of traumatic brain injury or neck trauma, history of dental treatments before the tinnitus started, diseases of the jaw joint or bruxism, inadequate positions for long periods, among others. That is, the doctor will ask about any neck problem that can cause tinnitus.
You must know that while your doctor is performing the physical examination, the tinnitus can increase or change its tone, especially while exploring the neck and the head. Your doctor also checks the jaw joint function and, sometimes, you must also be evaluated by an otolaryngologist or a neurologist to discard a severe disease in those areas.
This also explains why specialists in many medical fields (like otolaryngologists, physiotherapists and dentists) are working together to better understand the specific causes of tinnitus and to find a proper treatment.
Another important thing that you must know about tinnitus is that, nowadays, it is considered as an untreatable symptom by traditional doctors, which means that, according to them, you have "to learn to live" with this problem. However, chiropractors can offer you several options to eradicate tinnitus as it is explained below.
Now that you know how neck problems can cause tinnitus, you can understand why chiropractors recommend reducing the muscular tension as the first therapeutic step of tinnitus treatment. In fact, chiropractors have massages and other manual techniques as the base of this treatment, which reduces the head, jaw joint and neck muscular tension. You must also know that these techniques can also help you relieve other symptoms like a chronic headache, vertigo, dizziness and aural fullness.
Chiropractors also recommend regularly doing stretching exercises and rotation movements in the jaw (atlanto-occipital) joint at home to relieve the tension in the muscles. You must be instructed by your chiropractor to avoid doing any movements which may trigger a neck problem and cause tinnitus. Breathing exercises are also recommended to learn how to handle stress, one of the most important causes of generalized muscular contraction.
This may sound like a lot of false promises to you, but many studies support the efficiency of this kind of treatment. In fact, a study performed by Björne A. and collaborators showed that people who regularly performe relaxation exercises, for at least 3 years, experienced a very important reduction of tinnitus caused by neck problems.
At this point, it is very important to say that, whenever you undergo a chiropractic treatment to relieve tinnitus, it must be performed by an expert because, as we said before, certain movements can cause irritation or worsen the muscular tension and, consequently, cause tinnitus. Likewise, chiropractors know the exact movements that are needed in the atlas (the first cervical vertebra) to reduce the tension and to improve the proprioception and nociception nervous signals. So, when this information flow improves, the brain stem can better interpret nerve signals and reduce symptoms, like tinnitus, which are caused by neck problems.
During the acute moment of pain, or when relaxing exercises are not enough, you can also benefit from local anesthetics, such as lidocaine injections or patches over the jaw and neck muscles (like the lateral pterygoid, the masseter, the trapezius and the sternocleidomastoid). This is an effective treatment because local anesthetics do not only relieve pain but also reduce the tension in the muscles and the symptoms that it produces. The effectiveness of this treatment also demonstrates that, in fact, neck problems can cause tinnitus.
You can also experience an important pain relieve by using bite splints for eight weeks. This is why a dentist evaluation is very important if you are experiencing chronic tinnitus without any apparent cause.
In conclusion, neck problems can cause tinnitus, so when a chiropractor corrects the cervical spine misalignment by performing a manual therapy, this symptom significantly improves or even disappears. Likewise, you must remember that a cervical readjustment is a very delicate procedure, so you should always look for an experienced professional to undergo this procedure, choose the best way of treatment and determine if you need to be evaluated by other specialists.