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Pulsatile Tinnitus (Hearing Heartbeat)

Tinnitus is most commonly referred to as the conscious perception of a noise or sound in a person’s ear. Some individuals state that their tinnitus sounds like a ringing, buzzing, humming, hissing, roaring, or even a pulsating sound that resembles a heartbeat. Tinnitus affects anywhere from 15-20% of people. Interestingly enough, tinnitus is not considered a condition itself. It is usually part of an underlying condition such as hearing loss, history of noise exposure, and even circulatory system disorders.

When individuals have circulatory system disorders, they may note that their tinnitus resembles a pulsating sound similar to a heartbeat. This is called pulsatile tinnitus. It can also be referred to as “physical tinnitus” or “somatosounds”. Often, patients report that they may hear a “swooshing, thumping, or whooshing” sound. Pulsatile tinnitus (PT) is a condition with multiple etiologies or causes; most of which are related to blood vessel disorders. It is less common than non-pulsatile tinnitus and affects less than 10% of people. Unlike non-pulsatile tinnitus, pulsatile tinnitus usually has an underlying cause because it is linked to the ear as well as a physical source of sound (i.e., a location in the body that has interrupted blood flow.) Some examples of these are: irregular blood vessels, high blood pressure, anemia, overactive thyroid gland, atherosclerosis, connection problems between arteries and veins, and less commonly, head and neck tumors.

Tinnitus that cannot be detected by a clinician but is heard by the patient is considered to be subjective tinnitus, and tinnitus that can be detected by the patient and the clinician is considered to be objective tinnitus. Pulsatile tinnitus usually is unilateral, meaning it only affects one ear. It can, occasionally, be bilateral (affecting two ears) if the underlying cause is affecting blood flow to both ears. It is generally possible to identify the underlying cause of pulsatile tinnitus. The patient’s medical history, audiogram (hearing test), and possible imaging procedures like a CT scan or MRI are used in combination to find a diagnosis.

In order to treat the pulsatile tinnitus, the underlying cause must first be identified. Pulsatile tinnitus typically signifies something else going on within the body that needs medical attention. Usually treating the underlying cause of the pulsatile tinnitus will resolve the symptoms. Although a good majority of cases of pulsatile tinnitus are found to be linked to an underlying cause, there is a chance that doctors may not be able to locate an underlying cause. If this is the case, sometimes things such as listening to white noise, using a tinnitus sound generator device, or even seeking tinnitus retraining therapy may provide relief for you.

While most causes of pulsatile tinnitus are fairly benign, pulsatile tinnitus in conjunction with other side effects such as increased pressure within the head and neurological symptoms should be evaluated right away.

If you or someone you know are concerned that you may be experiencing pulsatile tinnitus, schedule an appointment with one of our Audiologists and Ear, Nose & Throat Physicians today!


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