If you’ve experienced tinnitus, or a ringing of the ears, you might be aware that the sensation can persist long after it first occurs. It may seem similar to the chronic ache or pain someone feels after they sustain a major injury- and this isn’t necessarily a coincidence, according to recent scientific studies.

The Georgetown University Medical Center has discovered a problem in the brain that is able to cause both of these sensations- tinnitus and chronic pain. Certain structures in the brain function as gatekeepers to signals that the brain is receiving. These signals include noise and pain, correlating to the chronic pain and tinnitus experienced by millions of people. The neural gatekeepers keep these signals organized and under control, but in the case of tinnitus, hearing loss can cause them to become unorganized and dysfunctional. Harmful signals can be let through the gate to cause tinnitus, and those who already have some hearing damage have increased intensity.

The researchers at Georgetown University noticed that this process was extremely similar to those who have chronic pain after an injury. In both cases, there are not any external, visible causes of pain. But the signals being let through the “gates” in the brain tell the body that pain is still being felt. It’s not entirely understood yet how exactly the gatekeeping neural structures become broken or faulty. However, the researchers have been able to figure out which structures they are- the nucleus accumbens, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex. This brings them much closer to understanding how they become dysfunctional, and helps develop new tinnitus treatment.

If you are experiencing long-term or persistent tinnitus, it’s important to see an audiologist , hearing aid specialist or get a hearing test. In the meantime, use ear protection when you find yourself around loud noises, and try to turn the volume down on personal devices to prevent any further hearing damage.