by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
© March, 2018, revised March, 2020
Over the years, people with all sorts of weird tinnitus have contacted me. As a result, I’ve written about nodding-chime tinnitus, gaze-evoked tinnitus, reactive tinnitus, pulsatile tinnitus, squeaking tinnitus and touch-sensitive (somatic) tinnitus as well as the common neurophysiologic tinnitus that we normally just call tinnitus.
Recently I received an email from Jean-Philippe that had a different kind of tinnitus—one I’d not come across before. His tinnitus occurs when he moves his tongue. I’m calling it (for obvious reasons) moving-tongue tinnitus.
I have a strange kind of tinnitus and wanted your opinion. I researched a lot online and nowhere found something quite like what I have.
It started about two years ago. I now hear a buzzing noise in my left ear. What is unique about it is that when I move my tongue (either inside my mouth, or outside of it), up towards my noise, on the right side the buzzing sound gets a lot louder in my left ear.
Also, if I do the same kind of movement with my tongue, to the left side instead of the right side, I start hearing a buzzing sound in my right ear.
I have a somewhat tight neck and shoulders because I spend a lot of time at the computer. I do try to have good posture, but it is certainly not perfect. I also suffer from migraines/headaches from time to time. Furthermore, the buzzing sound increases significantly if I turn my neck as far as I can to either side.
I had an MRI and hearing test and everything was fine. My doctor told me there isn’t much more to do. Do you have any advice for me?
Later, another man wrote:
I have single-sided sensorineural hearing loss in my right ear and high pitched tinnitus and migraines.
Recently, I noticed when I push my tongue up over my two front teeth towards my nose I hear a distinct buzzing noise inside the left side of my head (brain). Basically pushing my tongue against my teeth is like ringing a door bell (i.e. I can keep my tongue in position and create a long ring, or move it repeatedly to create a series of rings).
In my case, it’s a very pronounced, singular ring, rather than a perceived change in volume of tinnitus.
You both have an unusual kind of tinnitus to be sure. I’ve not come across this kind of tinnitus before. In your case, Jean-Philippe, I think I know exactly what is going on and how you can effectively treat it.
What you have is a unique form (at least as far as I know) of somatosensory tinnitus. Somatosensory tinnitus is body tinnitus (from the Greek word “soma”—body. This kind of tinnitus is generated in various parts of your body—mostly by the muscles in your head and neck.
This is why you can change your tinnitus by turning your neck hard left or right (many people can do this too). Other people with somatosensory tinnitus can change their tinnitus by clenching their teeth, by moving their eyes, by touching their faces in certain places or by nodding or shaking their heads. You can also change your tinnitus by moving your tongue.
The reason this happens is because you have not just one, but two pathways to the auditory parts to your brain. One is your auditory nerve. Everybody knows about that. However, few realize that we have a second “parallel” pathway that delivers signals from the rest of the body.
Doctors call this secondary or parallel pathway the “non-classical auditory pathway” (otherwise called the extra-lemniscal pathway). These two pathways process information differently and go to different parts of your brain. Your non-classical auditory pathway figures prominently in your somatosensory tinnitus.
Here is an excerpt from Chapter 9 in the 7th edition of my book Take Control of Your Tinnitus—Here’s How that explains it.
The classical pathway is strictly for auditory information. It is narrowly tuned to sound frequencies. It processes auditory information as this information moves from the cochlea (inner ear) to the primary auditory areas in the brain.
In contrast, the non-classical pathway is more broadly tuned, is more diffusely organized and is more plastic as compared to the classical pathway. The non-classical pathway receives its information not only from the ears, but also from other sensory organs of the somatosensory system such as the tactile (sense of touch/feel) system and the visual system.
The association between the auditory and the non-classical (somatosensory) pathways occurs due to connections in the dorsal cochlear nucleus of the brain. There multitasking neurons receive signals from both the auditory and the somatosensory pathways.
Because there can be this association between the auditory pathways and the non-auditory pathways, when abnormal interactions occur between the various systems connected to these pathways, the result can be somatosensory tinnitus. That is why, as one person explained, “Since my cochlear implant surgery, I can rub behind my ear and hear a doorbell sound.” Note that the shorter the interval between the stimulus of one pathway relative to the other, the greater the interaction between them.
This explains the connection between various forms of “weird” tinnitus that affect the other senses such as somatosensory tinnitus and gaze-evoked tinnitus. This also explains why grinding your teeth can cause or modulate your tinnitus. It also explains how involving another sense can change your existing tinnitus.
Moving your tongue activates your extra-classical pathway, thus sending signals to your brain which are then interpreted as sound—in your case, a buzzing tinnitus sound. Cool, huh?
What I’d recommend, is that you get and read my tinnitus book Take Control of Your Tinnitus—either the printed book or eBook version (the text is identical in both). Chapter 9 explains what somatosensory tinnitus is, and Chapter 20 explains how you can effectively treat it.
Once you’ve read it and understand about your tinnitus, then start trying out things mentioned in Chapter 20 to reduce or eliminate your tinnitus—unless, of course, you want to remain unique with the only known case of moving-tongue tinnitus.
One thing I’d suggest is use a combination of chiropractic and massage treatments to relax the muscles in your tight neck and let the vertebrae in your upper neck move back into proper alignment. When done properly, I think that this will eliminate your strange tinnitus.