The Western allopathic approach to tinnitus is dramatically different from either Western Herbalism or Traditional Chinese Medicine in addressing this condition.
Western Allopathic Medicine: Tinnitus is the perception of sound when no actual external noise is present. Tinnitus is a non-auditory, internal sound that can be intermittent or continuous, in one or both ears, and either a low or high-pitch sound. The sounds of tinnitus have been described as whistling, chirping, clicking, screeching, hissing, static, roaring, buzzing, pulsing, whooshing, or musical. The volume of the sound can fluctuate and is often most noticeable at night or during periods of quiet. Tinnitus is often accompanied by a certain degree of hearing loss.
Tinnitus can be either an acute or temporary condition, or a chronic health malady. Millions of Americans experience tinnitus, often to a debilitating degree, making it one of the most common health conditions in the country. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that nearly 15% of the general public, over 50 million Americans, experience some form of tinnitus. Roughly 20 million people struggle with burdensome chronic tinnitus, while 2 million have extreme and debilitating cases.
In general, there are two types of tinnitus:
- Subjective Tinnitus: Head or ear noises that are perceivable only to the specific patient. Subjective tinnitus is usually traceable to auditory and neurological reactions to hearing loss, but can also be caused by an array of other catalysts. More than 99% of all tinnitus reported tinnitus cases are of the subjective variety.
- Objective Tinnitus: Head or ear noises that are audible to other people, as well as the patient. These sounds are usually produced by internal functions in the flow of blood or muscular-skeletal systems. It is often more like the sound of a heartbeat or pulsating. This type of tinnitus is very rare, representing less than 1% of total tinnitus cases.
Other possible causes of tinnitus are:
- Head and neck injuries
- Loud noises,
- Ear infections
- A foreign object, or earwax touching the eardrum
- Eustachian tube (middle ear) problems
- TMJ disorders
- Stiffening of the middle ear bones
- Cardiovascular disease
- Traumatic brain injury
There are also potential risk factors including the following:
- Noise exposure from work, headphones, concerts, explosives
- Gender – men are affected more than women
- Hearing loss
- Age – older individuals have a higher likelihood of developing tinnitus
There is currently no scientifically valid cure for most types of tinnitus. There is, however, remedies that focus on diverting attention, addressing the emotional impact, and or cognitive therapy.
Western Herbalism: Tinnitus can serve as an important marker pointing to other potential health issues, since it a symptom and not a disease. Whatever the cause it tends to worsen in times of tension, stress and or muscle spasms. Stimulates like caffeine or nicotine, which increases vasoconstriction, can exasperate it. Furthermore, it can be caused by damaged fine hair cells of the inner ear. Although this cannot be reversed there might we some reduction felt in using some of the suggestions below. Stress reduction can often be helpful. Some herbs have been used to address tinnitus including black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) and more recently ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba).
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM): In TCM we know that the kidney qi communicates with the ears and that as we age or because of various states of health this can affect our qi, therefore the kidneys are often identified as root causes of tinnitus.
In approaching treatment of tinnitus, it is important to distinguish between an acute or sudden occurrence or a long-term tinnitus that gets worse over time or comes and goes. Furthermore, it is important to determine whether it is an excess-type or a deficiency-type of tinnitus. A key to this determination is that an excess type of tinnitus is often experienced in only one ear, while a deficiency based tinnitus tends to develop in both ears. The deficiency type usually gets better during the day and gets worse at night. A combination of deficiency and excess syndromes is possible, especially in persons with other illnesses or with tinnitus that has persisted for several years.
The following is a description of excess and deficiency patterns that might be able to better pinpoint treatment principles to be used.
Excess type #1, Hyperactive liver and gallbladder fire:
- Sudden onset
- Continual sound
- Excess symptoms (a headache, flushed face, irritability)
- Excessive anger, fright
- Excessive use of alcohol
TCM formula: Long dan Xie Gan Tang (Gentiana Comb) with the addition of moutan, ligustrum, for persistent liver fire weakening the Kidney water.
Excess type #2, Phlegm Fire Syndrome
- Intermittent ringing in the ears
- Feeling of blocked ears
- Chest stuffiness
- Excess phlegm
- Blockage manifesting as difficult urination or constipation
TCM formula: Wen Dan Tang (Bamboo and Hoelen Comb)
- with the addition of pear, haliotis, uncaria (liver)
- with lapis, scute, rhubarb and aquilaria (blockage of chest, constipation)
- with dampness (Ban Zia Bai Zhu Tian Ma Tang)
Diet: avoid fat or spicy food
Deficiency type #1, Deficient Kidney Jing
- Gradual worsening ringing
- Deficient heat symptoms
TCM formula: Liu Wei Di Huang Wan (Rehmannia Six Formula) and schizandra.
TCM formula Er Long Zuo Ci Wan (Tinnitus Left Supporting Pills)
Deficiency type #2, Sinking Spleen Qi (yang def.)
- Intermittently occurring tinnitus that is relieved through rest and reduced stress
- Low energy
- Poor appetite
- Loose stools
TCM formula: Yi Qi Chong Ming Tang (Ginseng, Astragalus and Pueraria Comb.)
Ear Massage: There are several sites that have detailed directions for addressing tinnitus through massage:
The bottom line is that the early intervention is necessary for long-term success. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms outlined in any of the treatment options, seek the advice of a Physician or Clinical Herbalist (http://www.americanherbalistsguild.com/herbalists-and-chapters-near-you)
Davis, Kathleen FNP. 2016. Tinnitus: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment. The University of Illinois-Chicago, School of Medicine. Available from
Flaws, B Sionneau P. 2001. The Treatment of Modern Western Medical Disease with Chinese Medicine. Blue Poppy Press. p. 55-56.
Hoffmann, D. 2003. Medical Herbalism. Healing Arts Press. P372-373.
Dharmananda, S. Ph. D. 1998. Treatment of Tinnitus, Vertigo, and Meniere’s disease with Chinese herbs. Institute for Traditional Medicine. Available from http://www.itmonline.org/arts/tinmen.htm