Nearly 45 million Americans suffer from tinnitus, which is the perception of sound where no external sound source is present. This phantom sound is typically perceived as a ringing sound, but can also materialize as a buzzing, hissing, whistling, swooshing, or clicking.
First it is important to understand about tinnitus is that it’s a symptom, not a disease. Consequently, tinnitus may signal an underlying medical condition that, once treated, cures the tinnitus. Earwax buildup or other obstructions, blood vessel disorders, select medications, and other underlying disorders can all trigger tinnitus, so the starting point is ruling out any conditions that would would need medical or surgical treatment.
In most instances of tinnitus, however, no specific cause is discovered. In these cases, tinnitus is assumed to be caused by damage to the nerve cells of hearing in the inner ear. Noise-induced hearing loss, age-related hearing loss, and one-time exposure to very loud sounds can all cause tinnitus.
When tinnitus is caused by nerve cell damage, or is associated with hearing loss, tinnitus often cannot be cured—but that doesn’t mean people have to suffer without help. Although there is no definitive cure for the majority of instances of chronic tinnitus, various tinnitus treatment options are available that help patients live better, more comfortable, and more productive lives, even if the perception of tinnitus remains.
The following are some of the treatment options for tinnitus:
The majority of cases of tinnitus are associated with some kind of hearing loss. In patients with hearing loss, a lesser amount of sound stimulation reaches the brain, and in response, researchers believe that the brain changes physically and chemically to accommodate the deficit of stimulation. It is this maladaptive response to sound deprivation that results in tinnitus.
Tinnitus is intensified with hearing loss because when ambient sound is muffled, the sounds identified with tinnitus become more recognizable. But when hearing aids are utilized, the amplified sound signals cause the sounds of tinnitus to blend into the richer background sounds. Hearing aids for tinnitus patients can then deliver multiple benefits, including enhanced hearing, enhanced auditory stimulation, and a “masking effect” for tinnitus.
Sound therapy is a wide-ranging phrase used to describe a number of methods to using external sound to “mask” the tinnitus. Over time, the brain can learn to recognize the sounds of tinnitus as insignificant relative to the competing sound, thereby decreasing the intensity level of tinnitus.
Sound therapy can be delivered through masking devices but can also be provided through selected hearing aid models that can stream sound wirelessly by means of Bluetooth technology. Some hearing aid models even connect with compatible Apple devices, including iPhones, so that any masking sounds downloaded on the Apple devices can be transmitted wirelessly to the hearing aids.
The types of masking sounds utilized can vary, including white noise, pink noise, nature sounds, and music. Sounds can also be specially programmed to match the sound frequency of the patient’s tinnitus, providing personalized masking relief. Provided that each patient will respond differently to different masking sounds, it’s vital that you work with a knowledgeable hearing professional.
Several behavioral therapies exist to help the patient overcome the psychological and emotional elements of tinnitus. One example is mindfulness-based stress reduction, in which the patient learns to accept the condition while developing useful coping strategies.
You may have also heard the term Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT), which brings together cognitive-behavioral therapy with sound masking therapy. With Tinnitus Retraining Therapy, patients learn to establish healthy cognitive and emotional reactions to tinnitus while applying sound therapy to teach their brains to reclassify tinnitus as unimportant, so that it can be consciously ignored.
In conjunction with the more targeted sound and behavioral therapies, people can engage in general wellness activities that frequently reduce the severity of tinnitus. These activities include healthy diets, frequent exercise, social activity, recreational activities, and any other activities that contribute to enhanced health and reduced stress.
There are at present no FDA-approved medications that have been found to cure or relieve tinnitus directly, but there are medications that can treat stress, anxiety, and depression, all of which can render tinnitus worse or are caused by tinnitus itself. In fact, some antidepressant and antianxiety medications have been shown to supply some alleviation to patients with severe tinnitus.
A flurry of encouraging research is being carried out in labs and universities world wide, as researchers continue to search for the underlying neurological cause of tinnitus and its ultimate cure. While many of these experimental therapies have shown some promise, remember that they are not yet readily available, and that there’s no assurance that they ever will be. People struggling with tinnitus are encouraged to seek out established treatments rather than waiting for any experimental treatment to hit the market.
Here are a couple of the experimental therapies currently being evaluated:
- Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS) delivers electromagnetic pulses into the affected brain tissue to reduce the hyperactivity that is thought to cause tinnitus.
- Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) is another method of delivering electromagnetic pulses into the hyperactive brain tissue that is thought to cause tinnitus.
- Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) is similar to the above therapies in its use of electromagnetic energy, the difference being that DBS is an invasive procedure requiring surgery and the placing of electrodes in the brain tissue.
Other medical, surgical, and pharmacological therapies exist, but the outcomes have been mixed and the dangers of invasive procedures in many cases outweigh the benefits.
The Best Treatment For Your Tinnitus
The optimum tinnitus treatment for you is dependent on many factors, and is best determined by a qualified hearing specialist. As your local hearing care professionals, we’ll do everything we can to help you find relief from your tinnitus. Book your appointment today and we’ll find the customized solution that works best for you.