Original Article

The assessment of pulsatile tinnitus—a systematic review of underlying pathologies and modern diagnostic approaches

Kiera E. Grierson, Pascal Bou-Haidar, Jaymi Dumper, Paul A. Fagan


Background: Pulsatile tinnitus (PT) is an auditory phenomenon that occurs in the absence of an external stimulus and presents as a humming or whooshing sound synchronous with the subject’s heartbeat. PT has many causes, ranging from the benign to the life threatening. In the following report, we focus on defining the most common causes of PT and explore changing approaches to diagnostic radiology used in the assessment of PT patients, with the goal of providing an updated and practical set of guidelines for the assessment of this complicated condition.
Methods: A collection of case studies, retrospective reviews and technical reports were sourced from PubMed’s online database. The initial cohort was filtered by language and content, and then sorted according to patient demographics, presenting symptoms, imaging protocols and relative success of radiological investigations.
Results: The most common causes of PT include vascular anomalies, benign or idiopathic intracranial hypertension (BIH/IIH), and certain middle ear masses. We recommend using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) as the primary imaging modality for investigating most cases of PT, due to an increase in sensitivity and decrease in medical risk for the patient compared to computed tomography (CT) and traditional angiography. We detail protocols for both basic and comprehensive MRI studies to be used in the assessment of PT and provide descriptions of common radiological findings with representative images for reference. Finally, we make an argument in favour of foregoing extensive imaging studies in cases of subjective idiopathic PT, where no risk factors can be identified in the patient’s medical history or physical examination.
Conclusions: The diagnosis of pulsatile tinnitus should be guided by comprehensive clinical data and dominated by the conservative use of MRI. In subjective PT where no risk factors are present, we recommend foregoing extensive imaging.

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