By Carl Wharam, PT, DPT
A high-pitched ringing sound. A low rumbling. Echoing. “EEEEEEE”. “Choo-Choo”. Tinnitus comes with a variety of sounds. It can range from an annoyance to preventing people from sleeping to “Satan couldn’t make a better punishment.” Whatever it sounds like, it’s a phantom sound that can be heard only by you in one or both ears.
Many people experiencing tinnitus ask us “what causes this (tinnitus)?” and like we all dreaded in school, the answer is: “it depends”. Tinnitus can generate from trigger points (muscle knots) in the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) or masseter, which are muscles in the face and neck. Tinnitus also can be associated with clenching/temporomandibular dysfunction, hearing damage, or overactivation of the trigeminal nerve. It could be a side effect of medications or sometimes there is no reason at all.
Because tinnitus has such a variety of causes, it can be tricky to treat. I always tell patients that tinnitus is fickle and that what works for one person may not work for another and what is not effective for the two of them may work for a third person. Some people will see great results, some will experience decreased volume, and sadly some will not experience any improvement.
With that in mind, one of the best things you can do to reduce the ringing or rumbling is to optimize your posture. When the head is forward, the masseter and SCM muscles are under more stress, as well as all the surrounding structures. Demonstrating good posture means ears over shoulders, shoulders over hips, and tongue up on the roof of the mouth. This has the added benefit of reducing neck and low back pain and makes you taller.
Self massage can also help with knots in the SCM and masseter that may be contributing to tinnitus. You can help reduce tension in the masseter by grasping the cheek muscle and holding for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeated several times over the span of a couple days, you might be amazed at how much they loosen up. A physical therapist specializing in craniofacial conditions can help release these muscles and others that may be problematic in tinnitus. More information about our specialized tinnitus treatments is available on our website.
Tinnitus can be a stickler, but you will never know if you can get peace and quiet unless you try!
Dr. Carl Wharam is a physical therapist specializing in craniofacial conditions at PhysioPartners’ Renaissance CranioFacial Group. You may schedule a consultation with Dr. Wharam by calling (773) 665-9950.