What is Somatic Tinnitus?
Somatic or somatosensory tinnitus (ST) is a subtype of subjective tinnitus caused by sensory information transmitted from the cervical spine or jaw to the brain. Your somatosensory system, part of your sensory nervous system, responds to some kinds of change in your body. The complex network of sensory neurons reacts to movement, pressure, temperature, and pain. When changes, like muscle spasms, happen in the cervical (neck) or temporomandibular (jaw), somatic tinnitus can result. Somatic tinnitus can be called conductive tinnitus or cervicogenic tinnitus. Conductive simply means caused by outer functions. The term cervicogenic means originating from your cervical spine or the nerves and muscles in the neck.
How do muscle spasms in your jaw or neck cause phantom noise in your ears? Sensory information travels to your brain via neural fibers in the brain's dorsal root ganglia or trigeminal ganglion. Since some of these same fibers also project to your auditory system, signals can fool your brain into thinking it hears sounds.
What Causes Somatic Tinnitus?
Anything that can cause your neck to twist or strain, like a fat pillow, bending over a computer keyboard, or peering too long into a microscope can lead to tinnitus. Tight neck muscles alone can cause tinnitus.
Whether from car accidents, athletic mishaps, or arthritis, neck injuries can cause ringing in your ears. Your head can be thrown forward and backward in a car accident, damaging the muscles, ligaments, and nerves in the neck. Football players sustain similar injuries on the field. Poor sleeping position or work posture can cause a pinched nerve, and arthritis destroys the cushion between the bones in your neck. Any of these things can cause somatic tinnitus.
Any dental problem like an abscess or impacted wisdom tooth that causes inflammation of the jaw joint can cause tinnitus. Anyone who has suffered from TMJ dysfunction knows where the temporomandibular joint is and how much it can hurt. Temporomandibular joint dysfunction or TMJ causes facial muscles and ligaments to tense and spasm. Treatment for TMJ includes wearing a custom-fitted nighttime mouthguard, massage, and anti-inflammatories.
How is Somatic Tinnitus Diagnosed?
A healthcare professional diagnoses somatic tinnitus when phantom ear noise coincides with neck or jaw pain. A doctor or physical therapist might make the determination after administering the Neck Bournemouth Questionnaire (NBQ) about the patient’s symptoms and conducting several cervical spine tests:
What's the Best Therapy for Somatic Tinnitus?
Various therapies have successfully treated somatosensory cervicogenic tinnitus. Although there is no definitive cure, managing the cause, manages the tinnitus symptoms. Somatic tinnitus can go away for patients who participate in physical therapy or seek chiropractic treatment.
Massage may help relieve tinnitus symptoms by reducing stress, resolving postural problems, and relaxing tensed muscles. There are two places around the ear and neck which can be massaged to relieve tinnitus:
1) The mastoid process, the part of the skull behind the ear, connects to muscles surrounding the ear and neck. Massaging the mastoid process with gentle Swedish massage can relieve tension in the neck and ear muscles and help correct neck alignment.
2) The masseter muscle attaches the jaw to the skull. Located at the jawbone's hinge, close to the earlobe, the masseter muscle is the strongest in the body in proportion to its size. When tense, it contributes to structural misalignment and ringing in the ear. Massage releases tension and realigns bones to relieve tinnitus.
There are neck exercises recommended for treating tinnitus. Any regiment of posture training and stretching can help. Posture training that strengthens neck muscles can improve cervical disc troubles and pain. Anything that stretches the tense neck and shoulder muscles may stop the neural signals causing the noise.
One simple exercise can easily be done while sitting up tall on a chair. Use your right hand to grasp the top of your head on the left side and gently pull your head toward your right shoulder. Feel a gentle stretch in the neck muscles on your left side. Do the same with the left hand and right side.
Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation
A TENS unit uses an electric current to stimulate the nerves for therapeutic purposes. It can be applied close to the upper cervical nerve or near the ear to relax muscles.
Steroids and Lidocaine Injections
Your doctor may recommend these to stop the pain and inflammation in your body that may be causing somatic tinnitus.
A physical therapist or chiropractor may manipulate your skeletal structure to normalize the cervical spine or jaw. If structural deviations cause muscle tightness or spasms, correcting them may alleviate your tinnitus symptoms.
Acupuncture and Acupressure -Acupuncture can effectively treat all types of tinnitus. Acupressure can relieve tinnitus by massaging the correct pressure points.
Somatic tinnitus, also called conductive tinnitus, or cervicogenic tinnitus, can be caused by injury, dental problems, or neck strain. While there isn't a guaranteed cure, usually treating the cause lessens or eliminates the phantom sounds of tinnitus.