15 Things You Might Want To Know About… Somatosounds

By John A. Coverstone, AuD

  1. Somatosounds are noises that originate within your body, usually from bodily functions. They are NOT tinnitus. Somatosounds can be traced back to a specific origin within the body. Tinnitus arises from, or is directly connected to, the auditory nervous system—as far as we know. Research is still being done to determine exactly what causes tinnitus.
  2. In the past, somatosounds sometimes were called objective tinnitus. This is because some somatosounds may be heard by a physician or audiologist listening close to a patient’s ear.
  3. If a somatosound cannot be heard by another person, it is not technically objective tinnitus. However, somatosounds are not technically tinnitus at all. So it technically shouldn’t matter.
  4. Because somatosounds do not originate from the auditory system, the term objective tinnitus is usually frowned upon by professionals. It really isn’t considered tinnitus at all.
  5. Pulsatile tinnitus is usually a somatosound. In many cases, it has a vascular origin. It may be caused by conditions, including arteriosclerosis of the carotid artery, ideopathic intracranial hypertension (high blood pressure around your brain), vascular malformations or tumors, or the higher incidence of blood vessels associated with Piaget’s disease.
  6. If the last paragraph didn’t scare you enough, pulsatile tinnitus should always be checked out by a physician. It can be life-threatening in rare cases. Fortunately, pulsatile tinnitus can also be treated in most cases.
  7. Another somatosound that is often mistaken for tinnitus comes from temporomandibular joint (TMJ) problems. People who clench their jaw frequently may develop a clicking or other sound. Your orthodontist can probably help with that (see the Winter 2016 issue of Tinnitus Today for a patient story about TMJ problems).
  8. Some people experience a condition where one of the middle ear muscles moves abnormally— often rhythmically—and vibrates the bones of the middle ear. Those bones transmit sound passed through the eardrum. Sound is vibration. So when they vibrate, we hear sounds.
  9. This condition is called myoclonus of the middle ear. It is usually benign, but should also be checked out. In rare cases, it also may also indicate a serious condition.
  10. The eustachian (“yu-stayshun”) tube is an opening traveling from the nasopharynx— between your throat and nose—to the middle ear, which is filled with air. It allows air to move into or out of the middle ear cavity so the air pressure equalizes with the outside world. Guess what? It can cause somatosounds, too! When the tissues around the eustachian tube atrophy or a muscular problem causes the eustachian tube to be abnormally open, a person may hear his or her own breathing as a “blowing” sound.
  11. This condition called a “patulous” or “patent” eustachian tube, can be seen by an examiner watching the movement of the eardrum. The eardrum will move in sync with the person’s breathing. It may be enhanced for forceful breathing, particularly if the opposite nostril is pressed closed. After showing all your friends, you should see an ENT, who may be able to treat the condition.
  12. A patulous eustachian tube may occur after rapid weight loss, so if you’ve been contemplating the newest fad diet, be forewarned.
  13. When the ear is stimulated with certain sounds, hair cells of the inner ear respond and create additional sounds. In a healthy ear, these responses may be measured and are called otoacoustic emissions (OAEs). Audiologists use them to measure whether certain hair cells—called outer hair cells—are working normally. There have been cases reported where otoacoustic emissions occur spontaneously and are loud enough to be heard by an outside person.
  14. The outside person would need to have pretty good hair cell function of their own. Spontaneous OAEs are very soft— even the louder ones.
  15. Just about everybody experiences somatosounds. Have you ever had a moment when your hearing decreased and you heard an intense ringing for few seconds? You may have even felt some pressure in your ear. It was probably due to a spasm of the stapedius muscle in the middle ear. If it happens frequently you should check with your physician, but if it only happens every now and then you are probably fine.