Ringing ears, or tinnitus, and pain that won’t go away may seem very different on the surface. In reality, scientists say there is a clear link between the two conditions. A new study suggests tinnitus and chronic pain are the result of similar changes in two regions in the front of the brain that act as so-called “gatekeepers” for noise and pain stimuli.
According to Joseph Rasuschecker, a professor of physiology and biophysics at Georgetown University and lead author of the study, says there is something wrong with the “gatekeeping” system in people with tinnitus or chronic pain. Instead of those regions of the brain doing their job to ignore the stimuli, the information is able to get through.
In both tinnitus and chronic pain, the body sends signals to the brain that really don’t mean anything, says Rasuschecker. But these signals are not filtered out, as they normally would be, he said.
The scientists also found a significant loss of gray matter and compromised circuit function — literal physical damage — in the suspected brain regions, with considerable overlap between neurological changes in tinnitus and chronic pain sufferers.
Tinnitus sufferers hear sounds that aren’t there, usually described as a ringing or buzzing “in the ears” even though such perceptions clearly arise in the brain. Hearing loss is often associated with tinnitus. Chronic pain is characterized as pain that persists for a long period of time and is resistant to pain treatment.
Previous research has shown that other disorders, such as depression and insomnia, are also associated with these regions of the brain.
Scientists hope their finding will pave the way for better understanding of the causes of tinnitus and chronic pain and allow for earlier treatment.
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