Linking tinnitus and depression needs to be examined from two aspects. (1) Does depression cause tinnitus, and (2) When tinnitus causes depression. Our main interest in this article will be the first of these, with a passing reference to the latter.
For tinnitus sufferers, the question then becomes, “it is possible that my tinnitus symptoms are not the product of some physical dysfunction but rather a psychological one? And if this is so, then can psychiatric help make a difference, perhaps even cure my tinnitus?
Scientists have been exploring whether there is a link between tinnitus and depression for decades. In one 1989 study, it was found that “self-reports of tinnitus loudness and severity, somatic and psychologic symptoms, and psychosocial dysfunction all showed significant improvement with treatment” and that “these results suggest that what initially appears to be an irreversible otologic (i.e. treated by an ear doctor) disability in these patients may be in large part a reversible psychiatric disability.”
There are certainly cases where tinnitus sufferers have been virtually cured with psychiatric help. One notable case that appeared on PBS News Hour, involved a retired engineer, Robert De Mong, whose tinnitus became so bad that he seriously contemplated suicide. After seeing a psychiatrist and being prescribed antidepressants, most of his symptoms dissipated.
The interesting thing about Robert De Mong’s case is, that he had suffered mild tinnitus for about 6 years, but then it suddenly became distressingly severe. It is likely that his long period with the mild tinnitus eventually brought on an undiagnosed form of depression which launched him into the severe phase of the condition. This would be particularly applicable if the tinnitus has caused insomnia over an extended period.
Tinnitus and depression can be scientifically linked because the phantom sounds the sufferer experiences are the result of the misfiring of tiny cochlear receptors that send electrical signals to the brain. The cause can be physical, as is often seen among patients exposed to chronic loud noise conditions which damage these tiny hair cells, but depression can also cause a type of “feedback” connection from the brain back to the ears. Depletion of serotonin levels in the brain have been suggested as the culprit.
It has been postulated that those most likely to experience tinnitus brought on by depression, are the ones who don’t suffer hearing loss from the condition. Professor Josef Rauschecker, a professor of neuroscience at the Georgetown University Medical Center and tinnitus expert, believes that this link may explain 30 percent of such cases.
When Tinnitus and Depression Are Cause and Effect
Many people with tinnitus develop anxiety or depression. I mean, if you’ve got this crazy noise in your head that never goes away – and doctors don’t seem to be able to identify the cause or do anything about it, while in the meantime you’re unable to sleep, it would probably drive you nuts too, right?
It’s that feeling of hopelessness that brings tinnitus and depression together in one person. The side effects of some drugs associated with tinnitus treatment may also contribute. If you’re one of these people, attending support groups where you can share with other people and maybe pick up some tips that have worked for others, may provide temporary hope and comfort.
Support can go a long way toward relieving anxiety and depression but may not be enough by itself. You need to blend it in with with a comprehensive plan which works best for you.