Tinnitus: Is There A Caffeine Connection?


Tinnitus, in most cases, is a subjective experience that is most commonly referred to as "ringing in the ears," and most commonly caused by exposure to loud noise. However there are many other ways that individuals can develop tinnitus, including head or neck injury, taking oto-toxic (harmful to the ear) medications or a virus that attacks the ear. Some health professionals even noted that certain dietary components, could cause, worsen or even alleviate tinnitus symptoms based on how much or how little a person's intake was.
There is much debate over whether dietary changes and or restrictions actually impact any given person's tinnitus. And it seems that this advice is as subjective as the condition itself. One of these dietary components that caused much controversy over the years is caffeine.
There has been an age-old argument on whether or not tinnitus is exacerbated by caffeine, but no scientific evidence available to prove it that it does or it doesn't until recently. A research team from the UK decided to see if the tinnitus-caffeine connection actually held water (or tea or coffee!)
I know that here at the American Tinnitus Association, we have gotten numerous letters over the years from our members that reducing their caffeine intake did cause a reduction and in some cases a total alleviation of tinnitus symptoms. However we have also heard that reducing or completely eliminating caffeine had absolutely no bearing on some individual's tinnitus and all it did was cause caffeine withdrawal including nausea and headaches. It seems that the caffeine connection is as subjective as the condition itself!
Still, as recently as 2005, we asked our ATA members in a member survey whether or not they felt that their tinnitus was affected by caffeine consumption. Though it was not a scientific survey, 24% of our members felt that their tinnitus got worse after consuming caffeine.
Contrary to all of these personal accounts, the UK team found that caffeine had no significant bearing (if any) on an individual's tinnitus. According to Dr. Lindsay St. Claire and her research team at the Center for Hearing and Balance Studies at the University of Bristol, the amount of caffeine a person consumed had no effect on the severity of tinnitus in their study. You can read more about the design of the study and how it was conducted here:http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE60J5EA20100120
It's also important to know exactly what caffeine is. It's a well-known vasoconstrictor (any agent that causes a narrowing of an opening of a blood vessel) of blood flow in the brain, and a vasodilator (a drug that causes dilation of blood vessels) in the muscles. In doses above 250 mg per day, scientists also agree that caffeine constricts blood flow in the brain, and can cause irritability, jitters, insomnia, heart palpitations, stomach upset, and headaches. Researchers Field et al.,found out something else about caffeine: Its consumption is so common, and its vasoconstriction effect on the brain so predictable, that its use probably confounds the results of MRIs and other brain scans. The researchers also saw abnormal cerebral blood flow in brain scans of people going through caffeine withdrawal.
Because of what we now know about tinnitus originating in the brain, it is certainly possible that for some people, other factors are coming into play (like what parts of the brain are stimulated by caffeine and what caused an individual's tinnitus) and impacting the areas in which tinnitus is originating.
So to conclude, if you have tinnitus, and are weighing whether or not to try to limit or cut caffeine completely out of your diet for "the ringing's" sake, consider the data obtained by the researchers at the University of Bristol. If you are a regular consumer of caffeine like me, you might find that the withdrawal symptoms are far worse than any benefit you might receive by cutting out caffeine completely! Since there doesn't seem to be any proven link to tinnitus worsening simply as a result of caffeine consumption. 

Please note that your personal experience with tinnitus may be that caffeine can worsen it, which is why its important to be your own detective when taking control of your tinnitus!

-Jennifer Born, ATA Director of Advocacy & Research