Tinnitus is a mysterious symptom that occurs for many different reasons. Often, tinnitus is associated with hearing loss. Other times its origin is unknown. However, if your tinnitus changes when you move your jaw, it might point to a cause for your condition—and effective treatment.

Being able to change tinnitus by moving your jaw is common. This is likely in part because our ear bones, the smallest bones in our body, were jawbones in our evolutionary ancestors. Their old function and their new are partly intertwined through the complex action of tiny ear muscles that are, to some extent, still jaw muscles.

Most People Can Alter Tinnitus with Jaw Motion

Studies show that up to 80% of people with tinnitus can change the sound in their ears by moving their jaw, head, or neck. The most common motions that alter tinnitus are jaw thrust or clenching the jaw on one side.

Typically, jaw motions worsen tinnitus. Among people who reported modulating their tinnitus with jaw motion in this study, 90% reported that it increased the volume of the sound. In fact, 41% said that it doubled the volume, and 26% said it tripled the loudness!

Jaw clenching also changed the pitch of the sound, making it higher.

For some people, neck motions could reduce the loudness of tinnitus.

An analysis of all motions that seemed to affect tinnitus showed that they were associated with the fifth cranial nerve, the trigeminal nerve, which we’ll talk about more later.

Unrecognized Jaw Muscles

For many people, altering tinnitus with jaw motion could be linked to three tiny muscles that used to be jaw muscles in our evolutionary ancestors.

The three tiny muscles are the tensor tympani, tensor veli palatini, and stapedius. They may be small, but they still have important roles to play when it comes to hearing.

The tensor tympani, for example, connects to your eardrum, and when you hear a loud noise, it begins to contract involuntarily. No one knows exactly why, but there are two prevailing theories. First, it may protect the delicate hearing components from damage. Second, it may be intended to improve the transmission of these sounds. The tensor tympani may achieve both effects simultaneously.

The tensor tympani and tensor veli palatini open the Eustachian tube to allow your ear pressure to equalize with outside pressure. The stapedius is the smallest skeletal muscle and it works to stabilize the stapes, the body’s smallest bone, to help our hearing.

These functions link to jaw movements, though they may not seem like it. The tensor tympani and tensor veli palatini connect to the trigeminal nerve. Remember, this is the nerve that is most associated with movements that change tinnitus. These muscles often contract when we perform voluntary actions of the jaw. When you speak, chew, swallow, or yawn, these muscles contract. In fact, these two muscles have to be coordinated with jaw muscles. Otherwise, they couldn’t open the Eustachian tube at proper times to equalize ear pressure.

Jaw Dysfunction and Ear Symptoms

Since these ear muscles are controlled by the same nerves as our jaw muscles, they might likely be affected by some of the stimuli that can cause temporomandibular jaw disorders (TMJ or TMD). People with TMJ often experience involuntary jaw motions like clenching. When bruxism forces your jaw muscles to clench, these ear muscles likely also clench. A similar situation might occur when your jaw is out of balance and your muscles are fighting hard against your jawbone and teeth to try to find a comfortable, relaxed position. This may cause your tensor tympani and/or tensor veli palatini to contract at inappropriate times.

Would this lead to tinnitus? Being able to modulate tinnitus with jaw motion correlates strongly with the previous history of TMJ. 

Some people have conscious control of their tensor tympani muscles. When they cause the muscle to contract, they usually hear a rumbling sound. If the muscle were contracting involuntarily, who knows what type of sound a person might hear? In addition, inappropriate contraction of the tensor tympani and tensor veli palatini together might open your Eustachian tube at the wrong time, causing your ear pressure to become too high or too low, leading to ear stuffiness.

TMJ Treatment Can Provide Tinnitus Relief in Columbia, SC

The good news is that if your tinnitus is related to TMJ, then TMJ treatment can help improve it. Overall 69% of people with tinnitus experience improvement with TMJ treatment. The odds of getting good results are even better if moving your jaw changes the sound of tinnitus.

If you are looking for relief from tinnitus or other TMJ symptoms in Columbia, SC, TMJ dentist Dr. Adam Hahn can help. Please call (803) 781-9090 or use our online contact form today to schedule a consultation at Smile Columbia Dentistry.