After his lunch break, Greg sits back down at his desk, and he hears something weird: a pulsing… or a kind of whooshing. It’s Friday, so he’s watching the clock very closely, so maybe it’s the tick, tick, tick of the second hand? Nope, not that; it doesn’t match up. What’s more, this whooshing sound seems like it’s coming from inside his own head, and it matches the beating of his heart perfectly.
Greg is experiencing something called pulsatile tinnitus. Only he doesn’t realize that’s what it is because pulsatile tinnitus isn’t exactly popularly known. When Greg thinks of tinnitus, he imagines buzzing and ringing sounds. So Greg fixates on the thrumming sound, wondering what it could mean.
What is pulsatile tinnitus, and what does it sound like?
Most tinnitus is defined, more or less, as a sound that only you can hear. Sometimes it’s a buzzing; sometimes it’s a ringing–sometimes it’s something entirely different. But in almost all cases, the sound is caused by an underlying issue (usually damage to or malfunctions in the ears–and only you can hear it).
Pulsatile tinnitus is a little different. Technically, the sound is still generated in your ears, but it’s a real sound. People have made verified audio recordings of what they hear. The underlying causes of pulsatile tinnitus tend to be a little different than other forms of tinnitus, and as a result, the origin of the sound is different too.
For most people, pulsatile tinnitus will sound like a rhythmic throbbing, thumping, or whooshing. And that rhythm will usually be in sync with your heartbeat. That’s because the source of the sound has to do with something called turbulent blood flow.
Can everyone hear my pulsatile tinnitus?
You can’t usually hear the blood flowing through your body. That would be weird and, uh, a little icky, honestly. But because of the location of the carotid artery (right behind your ears), when something causes your blood flow to become a little turbulent, you can actually hear it.
Some of that has to do with the acoustics of your head. But In theory, Greg could take his smartphone microphone and place it against his ear and–just maybe–get a recording of the thumping or whooshing sound that he’s hearing.
Now that I know what it sounds like, what causes pulsatile tinnitus?
So, Greg has done a basic Google search (he spent some time at WebMD, as we all do), and now he’s thinking about root causes. What could be at the heart (no pun intended) of the turbulent blood causing his pulsatile tinnitus? There are a couple of different potential causes:
- High blood pressure: High blood pressure can have a number of negative impacts on your overall health, and pulsatile tinnitus can be yet another symptom of hypertension (that’s the fancy medical term for high blood pressure). When you have high blood pressure, your blood flow through your carotid artery (again, located quite close to your ear) is more likely to be turbulent–and cause pulsatile tinnitus.
- Conductive hearing loss: Conductive hearing loss is typically caused by some kind of obstruction or infection, and it’s relatively common for this core issue to also cause turbulent blood flow (or change the acoustics of your head, thanks to some mucus soundproofing). Pulsatile tinnitus results in many of those cases (though it usually wanes once the root causes are addressed).
- Carotid artery disease: Buildup of plaque in the carotid artery can cause turbulent blood flow (think about a babbling creek or rushing rapids… only in your ears).
- A variety of blood vessel disorders: There are also a wide variety of blood disorders that can cause pulsatile tinnitus.
It’s not uncommon to experience temporary bouts of pulsatile tinnitus every once in a while. It’s when that rhythmic thumping doesn’t go away that you need to consider talking to a hearing specialist.
How do you treat pulsatile tinnitus?
If Greg’s pulsatile tinnitus symptoms last for much longer than a few hours, he’d be wise to get things checked out by a specialist. Treatment for pulsatile tinnitus generally involves identifying the root cause of the symptoms (and in this way, treating pulsatile tinnitus is not much different from treating buzzing-and-ringing tinnitus).
But at least now, when Greg hears that whooshing or thumping in his ears, he’ll know exactly what he’s listening to–and where that sound comes from.