Studies Show that Hearing Loss Can Worsen Tinnitus

The two most common maladies of the ears and auditory pathway are hearing loss and tinnitus. These conditions affect a vast population, and yet no cure has been discovered to solve these problems within the body. The good news is that treatment is rapidly advancing to take care of these issues and to improve communication and quality of life. Hearing loss is a reduction in the ability to perceive a certain frequency of sound. Experts measure hearing loss according to how loud a sound needs to be for a person to hear it. A parallel condition—tinnitus—poses the opposite issue. 


Rather than making sound impossible or difficult to hear, tinnitus produces a constant sound coming from within the body. The first type, objective tinnitus, occurs due to a sound in the body that a doctor can perceive. For instance, a bone might be clicking or a blood vessel might be sloshing near the cochlea of the inner ear. The second type, subjective tinnitus, is much more common. This condition occurs when the tiny hair-like cells of the inner ear called stereocilia are bent, broken, or otherwise damaged. This damage, rather than turning off the receptor, effectively turns on the receptor permanently. 


This constant sound can take many forms, such as whooshing, buzzing, humming, or clicking, but the most common report is that it sounds like ringing in the ears. These two conditions—hearing loss and tinnitus—are opposites in some ways, and yet recent research has revealed that they are connected. Let’s take a look at this new study as a way to understand what is happening when hearing loss and tinnitus occur at the same time. 

The Study

This recent research brought together 73 tinnitus patients, about half of whom had normal hearing and the other half with hearing loss. The researchers interviewed them about the severity of their tinnitus symptoms using the Tinnitus Functional Index questionnaire. These participants also had hearing tests to determine the degree and severity of hearing loss symptoms. With this information, the researchers were able to do a simple comparison between the groups and determined that those who had hearing loss reported worse conditions of tinnitus. Of course, this study was not able to determine if other factors contributed to the difference. Perhaps there was something about the group with hearing loss that was contributing to the worse tinnitus symptoms, and other statistical methods would be necessary to determine these possibilities. Nonetheless, the simple comparison lets us know that there might be a connection between hearing loss and worsening of tinnitus symptoms

The Treatments

Just as hearing loss and tinnitus are often connected to the same stereocilia in the cochlea of the inner ear, they can also be treated by the same devices in some cases. You are probably familiar with hearing aids and the basics of how they work. By using a microphone to capture the sound in the world, hearing aids then transform it into something louder that the ears can hear, much like a public address system or karaoke microphone. Of course, current hearing aids also transform the signal to make it serve communication, including voice identification and noise reduction technologies.


 How can these devices do anything to treat tinnitus? One of the functions is to produce sounds that can mask the sound of tinnitus. By playing quiet high-pitched sounds that are tuned to the specific symptoms of tinnitus, these devices can reverse the phase pattern of soundwaves, in effect canceling out the sound of tinnitus. This process doesn’t work for everyone, but with some patience in identifying the specific sound of tinnitus, it can be effective at reducing these symptoms for many people. 


If you are interested in receiving treatment for either hearing loss, tinnitus, or both conditions, it’s important not to delay seeking help. With the connections between these two conditions, you might be making tinnitus symptoms worse by delaying treatment for hearing loss. The first step is to make an appointment for a hearing test, and our offices are just a phone call or email away. Don’t put off your test any longer