Approximately 45 million Americans suffer from tinnitus, which is the perception of sound where no external sound source exists. This phantom sound is typically identified as a ringing sound, but can also materialize as a buzzing, hissing, whistling, swooshing, or clicking.
The first thing to understand about tinnitus is that it’s a symptom, not a disease. Consequently, tinnitus may indicate an underlying health condition that, when treated, cures the tinnitus. Earwax accumulation or other blockages, blood vessel conditions, specified medications, and other underlying conditions can all bring on tinnitus, so the first step is ruling out any conditions that would require medical or surgical treatment.
In most cases of tinnitus, however, no specific cause is found. In these instances, tinnitus is assumed to be caused by injury 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 induced by nerve cell damage, or is linked with hearing loss, tinnitus often cannot be cured—but that doesn’t mean people need to suffer without assistance. While there is no definitive cure for most cases of chronic tinnitus, several tinnitus therapy options are available that help patients live better, more comfortable, and more productive lives, even if the perception of tinnitus persists.
The following are some of the treatment options for tinnitus:
The majority of cases of tinnitus are connected with some form of hearing loss. In patients with hearing loss, less sound stimulation reaches the brain, and in response, investigators believe that the brain changes physically and chemically to accommodate the deficit of stimulation. It is this maladaptive reaction to sound deprivation that results in tinnitus.
Tinnitus is intensified with hearing loss because when surrounding sound is muffled, the sounds identified with tinnitus become more detectable. But when hearing aids are worn, the amplified sound signals cause the sounds of tinnitus to blend into the richer background sounds. Hearing aids for tinnitus patients can then create multiple benefits, including enhanced hearing, enhanced auditory stimulation, and a “masking effect” for tinnitus.
Sound therapy is a wide-ranging phrase used to describe several methods to using external sound to “mask” the tinnitus. Over time, the brain can learn to recognize the sounds of tinnitus as insignificant in comparison to the competing sound, thereby minimizing the intensity level of tinnitus.
Sound therapy can be delivered through masking devices but can also be delivered through certain hearing aid models that can stream sound wirelessly by means of Bluetooth technology. Some hearing aid models even link up with compatible Apple devices, including iPhones, so that any masking sounds set up on the Apple devices can be transmitted wirelessly to the hearing aids.
The types of masking sounds used can vary, including white noise, pink noise, nature sounds, and music. Sounds can also be specially designed to correspond to the sound frequency of the patient’s tinnitus, delivering customized masking relief. Seeing that each patient will respond differently to different masking sounds, it’s critical that you work with a qualified 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, whereby the patient learns to accept the ailment while developing helpful coping techniques.
You may have also heard the term Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT), which mixes cognitive-behavioral therapy with sound masking therapy. With Tinnitus Retraining Therapy, patients learn to formulate healthy cognitive and emotional reactions to tinnitus while applying sound therapy to train their brains to reclassify tinnitus as unimportant, so that it can be deliberately ignored.
Combined with the more targeted sound and behavioral therapies, people can engage in general wellness activities that have a tendency to lessen the severity of tinnitus. These activities consist of healthy diets, frequent exercise, social activity, recreational activities, and any other activities that foster enhanced health and lowered stress.
There are at this time no FDA-approved medications that have been shown to cure or alleviate 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 medicines have been shown to furnish some alleviation to patients with severe tinnitus.
A flurry of encouraging research is being performed in labs and universities in many countries, as researchers continue to hunt for the underlying neurological cause of tinnitus and its ultimate cure. While many of these experimental therapies have shown some promise, keep in mind that they are not yet readily available, and that there’s no guarantee that they ever will be. People suffering from tinnitus are encouraged to seek out existing treatments rather than holding out for any experimental treatment to hit the market.
Here are a few 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 means of delivering electromagnetic pulses into the hyperactive brain tissue that is believed 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 placement of electrodes in the brain tissue.
Other medical, surgical, and pharmacological therapies exist, but the outcomes have been mixed and the risks of invasive procedures quite often overshadow the benefits.
The Best Treatment For Your Tinnitus
The best tinnitus treatment for you is dependent on several factors, and is best evaluated by a certified hearing specialist. As your local hearing care professionals, we’ll do everything we can to help you find relief from your tinnitus. Set up your appointment today and we’ll find the personalized solution that works best for you.