by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
© November, 2020
A man reported,
Whenever I touch my right ear or touch the area around my right ear, I hear/feel a strong rumbling sound. It goes away as soon as I stop touching it.
A lady with a cochlear implant reported,
When I pull on my right earlobe, the side with the cochlear implant, I get a low-pitched, quiet tone. When I push my fingers around that area, especially my jaw, I also hear it.
A man, also with a cochlear implant, explained,
I can generate an auditory experience—a pure tone sound in my head—by pulling on the earlobe of my left ear (cochlear implant side). If I pull on my right ear, nothing like this happens.
He then asked,
Can other people do this or am I unique? How and why does this happen?
What these people are experiencing may seem weird, but there is a perfectly logical explanation. This is a form of somatic (body) tinnitus, also known as somatosensory tinnitus. It has nothing to do with cochlear implants as such, but in the latter two cases, it could be due to certain nerves being hyperactive or inflamed as a result of the implant surgery.
What few people know is that you have not just one, but two auditory pathways to your brain. The pathway that everyone knows about is, of course, your auditory nerve. This pathway is called the classical or lemniscal pathway. The second one is fittingly called the non-classical or extra-lemniscal pathway.
It is this second, non-classical pathway that is sending the weird, extraneous tinnitus tone to your brain. This happens because when you pull on your earlobe or touch your face around your ears, jaw or neck, you generate a “touch” (tactile) signal that goes to your brain. There some neurons that are multitasking, mess up and send this tactile signal to your auditory system which interprets it as a “somatic tinnitus” signal that you then hear as a tone, rumbling or other tinnitus sound.
Why does this happen? Here is a quote from pages 85-86 in my book, “Take Control of Your Tinnitus”, that explains this phenomenon.
Studies have shown that electrically stimulating the skin in certain places of the body can modulate tinnitus. For example, researchers can cause somatosensory tinnitus by electrically stimulating the median nerve in your arm. (1) This indicates that what doctors call the “non-classical auditory pathways” are involved in such forms of tinnitus.(2) In fact, it seems that the non-classical auditory pathways figure prominently in various forms of somatosensory tinnitus.
Just what exactly are these non-classical auditory pathways? The auditory nervous system consists of two parallel pathways. The first is called the classical pathway and the second goes by the name of non-classical pathway (otherwise called the extra-lemniscal pathway). These two pathways process information differently and go to different parts of the brain. (3)
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 to the primary auditory areas in your brain.
In contrast, the non-classical pathways are more broadly tuned, are more diffusely organized and are more plastic as compared to the classical pathway. The non-classical pathways receive their 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. (4)
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 somatic tinnitus. (5) That is why 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. (6)
This explains the connection between various forms of “weird” tinnitus that affect the other senses such as somatosensory tinnitus, gaze-evoked tinnitus and moving-tongue 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.
Below is the sidebar, “Touch-Sensitive Nerves in Your Head and Neck May Cause Tinnitus” that is associated with the above excerpt. It further explains:
New research reveals that for some people with hearing loss, the tinnitus associated with hearing loss stems from over-active sensory nerves in the face and neck. (7) After hearing loss occurs, for some reason, touch-sensing nerves in your face and neck step up their activity in the brain. The result is that some neurons in the cochlear nucleus become hyperactive. This increased activity has been linked to tinnitus.
For these people, treatment for their tinnitus may be as simple as acupuncture targeted at the nerves in the head and neck. Acupuncture seems to be mostly effective in acute and recent tinnitus as well as in somatic tinnitus. (8) There are many anecdotal reports of improvements in tinnitus as a result of acupuncture. Acupuncture can certainly reduce the stress and anxiety linked to tinnitus. (9)
These findings may also reveal why many people with temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMD) also suffer from tinnitus.
To be sure, this doesn’t happen to everyone, nor does it happen every time you may touch a sensitive spot on your ears, face or neck, but it does happen from time to time, more so in some people than in others. Consequently, the next time you experience touch-related tinnitus, know that you are neither unique nor crazy—but perhaps just a touch weird.
If you want to learn more about somatosensory tinnitus, read Chapters 9 and 20 in my book “Take Control of Your Tinnitus, Here’s How”. You can learn more about this book, or get a copy for yourself at https://hearinglosshelp.com/shop/take-control-of-your-tinnitus-heres-how.
(1) Moller, Aage R., et al. Textbook of Tinnitus. 2011. Springer. New York. pp. 363-368.
(2) Ibid. pp. 727-731.
(3) Ibid. pp. 51-68.
(4) Bartels, H. et al. 2007. Tinnitus and Neural Plasticity of the Brain. Otology and Neurotology 2007 Feb. 28 (2): 178-184. [http://dissertations.ub.rug.nl/FILES/faculties/medicine/2008/h.bartels/01_c1.pdf]. pp. 21-22.
(5) Sanchez, Tanit Ganz, and Carina Bezerra Rocha. “Diagnosis and Management of Somatosensory Tinnitus: Review Article.” Clinics 66.6 (2011): 1089–1094. PMC. Web. 24 Dec. 2015. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3129953. p. 1090.
(6) Rocha, Carina. 2015. When Should a Patient with Tinnitus be Referred to a Physiotherapist? Audiology WorldNews. June 18, 2015. http://www.audiology-worldnews.com/focus-on/1362-when-should-a-patient-with-tinnitus-be-referred-to-a-physiotherapist. p. 2.
(7) Nerves in Head and Neck Linked to Tinnitus. 2008. The Hearing Review. Vol. 15, No. 2, February, 2008. [http://www.hearingreview.com/issues/articles/2008-02_08.asp]. p. 60.
(8) Moller, Aage R., et al. Textbook of Tinnitus. 2011. Springer. New York. pp. 733-747.
(9) Craggs-Hinton, Christine. 2007. Coping with Tinnitus. Sheldon Press. London SW1P 4ST. p. 99.