Tinnitus is a disorder in which you hear sounds that have no outside source. Tinnitus comes from the Latin for “to ring like a bell,” which is why people call it “ringing in the ears,” but the actual sound people hear varies widely. Some people hear a ringing, some a buzzing, some a roaring, and others may even hear music. There are many potential causes of tinnitus, including TMJ, which is one of the most treatable causes, and therefore one worth exploring for anyone suffering from tinnitus.
Potential Causes of Tinnitus
There are many potential causes of tinnitus. Often people have tinnitus caused by many different factors at the same time. Some potential causes of tinnitus, include:
- Noise exposure
- Head and neck trauma
- Systemic disorders, including hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, Lyme disease, and fibromyalgia
- Tumors that affect the ears or related nerves
- Wax build-up in the ears
- Cardiovascular disease
- Toxic exposure of the ears
- Abnormal blood flow in the arteries
- Irregular brain structure
As noted above, most of these causes of tinnitus are not easily treatable. In fact, many of them are not treatable at all. Noise exposure, for example, results in damage or destruction of special hair cells in the ear that, once gone, cannot be replaced. Toxic exposure due to environmental compounds or certain medications can also lead to permanent or temporary tinnitus.
How TMJ Causes Tinnitus
Tinnitus is a mysterious illness, as is TMJ, and the links between them are equally mysterious. We know there is a correlation. About a third of tinnitus sufferers had TMJ symptoms in one study. In another study, about 60% of tinnitus sufferers had TMJ symptoms. About 60% of TMJ sufferers report tinnitus along with other TMJ symptoms, with similar proportion reporting ear pain and vertigo. But there are several proposed links between the disorders.
One is that TMJ causes chronic inflammation of certain brain and nerve tissue responsible for receiving and interpreting sound signals from the ear, causing it to think it is receiving sound.
Another possibility is that a displaced jaw can irritate the nerves that carry sound signals to your brain from your ear. These nerves don’t go straight from the ear into the brain, but travel downward past your temporomandibular joint to enter the spine and reach the brain that way. When these nerves are irritated, you may feel pain (ear pain is also common in TMJ), or your brain may interpret the pain signals as sound.
Finally, it’s possible that TMJ results in direct pressure on the ear itself. After all the temporal bone, which houses the ear, is the “temporo” of the temporomandibular joint. A displaced jaw could put pressure on the temporal bone, resulting in disruption of the ear’s delicate systems.
TMJ Treatment and Tinnitus
Whatever the mechanism by which TMJ leads to tinnitus, TMJ treatment leads to tinnitus relief for most people with TMJ. In studies, between 64 and 83% of tinnitus sufferers saw relief through TMJ treatment. The results seem to be long-lasting or permanent.
Although it’s clear that a lot more research is necessary to illuminate the specific link between tinnitus and TMJ, we know that TMJ treatment can help many people suffering from this otherwise difficult to treat condition.