Tinnitus is a terrible thing to endure. Even in the quietest, most peaceful environments, you still experience some amount of ringing, buzzing, or whooshing in your ears. It makes it difficult to concentrate, to rest, to sleep, and to have a normal, peaceful existence. In the recent movie Baby Driver
, the main character (“Baby”) constantly listened to music to escape the incessant ringing in his ears. And while that may have made for an interesting plot point, living with tinnitus is no joke. The Center For Disease Control estimates that around 50 million Americans
have some form of tinnitus, with 20 million experiencing chronic tinnitus and 2 million enduring debilitating tinnitus. All this raises the critical question: can anything be done to help those afflicted by tinnitus? Thankfully, the answer is yes. In this article, we’re going to help you understand the underlying causes of tinnitus, as well as how hearing aids can play a significant role in reducing the effects of it.
What Causes Tinnitus?
Tinnitus can be caused by a number of underlying conditions. An ear obstruction, such as wax buildup can lead to the in-ear noise. Ear injury, significant stress, and certain medications can also cause tinnitus. However, the most common cause of the disease is loss of hearing, which can either be a side-effect of old age or caused by significant exposure to loud noise. In other words, the older you get the greater the odds of you experiencing some form of hearing loss and tinnitus. The symptoms can emerge gradually and slowly, or in an instant, in the case of sudden exposure to a loud noise like a gun shot. There are two specific types of tinnitus:
- Subjective Tinnitus: This constitutes more than 99% of all tinnitus cases. Noises in the head or ear are only perceivable to the person hearing them, and are usually caused by hearing loss, a particular event, or a condition (wax buildup, tumor, etc.).
- Objective Tinnitus: Making up less than 1% of all tinnitus cases, objective tinnitus is extremely rare. The noises in the head or ear are audible to other people as well, and are usually caused either by circulatory problems (blood flow) or somatic (muscular and skeletal movement) problems.
The level of disruption caused by tinnitus varies from person to person. Some people find it doesn’t affect their lives significantly, while others have trouble concentrating, sleeping, and living a normal life. Unfortunately, there is no scientifically proven way to cure tinnitus. Thankfully, there are ways to manage and minimize the symptoms.
Managing and Minimizing Tinnitus
Treatment for tinnitus can follow a three-pronged approach, in which one or multiple treatments can be used:
- Improving hearing through the use of hearing aids
- Treating the side-effects of tinnitus, such as stress, anxiety, depression, or anger
- Overriding the tinnitus through various types of sound therapy
Let’s look at each one in detail.
When a person’s hearing declines, there is less external sound to stimulate the brain. The brain changes and adapts to this drop in sound stimulus, and it is these changes that often cause tinnitus. Hearing aids, which use a microphone, speaker, processor, and amplifier to increase external sounds, can be an effective treatment for tinnitus. This is partly due to the fact that they amplify the amount of sound stimulus the brain receives. They also can help mask the symptoms of tinnitus by increasing external noise to the point where it covers over the ear ringing. Hearing aids can also minimize the frustrations tinnitus sufferers feel in social situations. Whereas without hearing aids, tinnitus can make conversation very difficult, hearing aids allow a person to clearly hear what others are saying and respond appropriately. Additionally, many newer hearing aids are Bluetooth enabled, meaning they can connect to a smartphone. This allows more pleasant noises (like white noise) to be played through the hearing aids, thus masking the tinnitus. A study in 2007
indicated that 60% of hearing aid wearers experienced some tinnitus relief, with 22% experiencing significant relief. The study noted: In the presence of hearing loss, the fitting of hearing aids activates the auditory cortex. Thus, sounds amplified by hearing aids may interfere with the central auditory representation of tinnitus. Hearing aids might be viewed as Gestalt therapy for the ears since tinnitus that was previously conspicuous in the foreground is relegated appropriately to the background with all other environmental sounds. The very act of taking the focus off of tinnitus spells relief for many people. If you’re experiencing tinnitus, hearing aids should be one of the first lines of treatment pursued. And if you’re worried about wearing something bulky, you needn’t be. Hearing aid technology has advanced to the point where some hearing aids are so small they actually rest within the ear canal and are nearly invisible.
Treating The Side Effects Of Tinnitus
Depending on the severity of a person’s tinnitus, they may experience a variety of side effects, such as depression, anger, and frustration. These are all understandable responses to a negative experience. However, these side effects should not be left untreated, as they can affect a person’s life just as much as the tinnitus itself. Through behavioral therapy, a person can learn to disassociate the tinnitus sounds from the negative emotions that often follow. Cognitive therapy can help a person replace their negative thoughts with positive, helpful lines of thought. As the American Tinnitus Association notes
: Behavioral therapies provide skills to reduce internal attention to tinnitus, improve coping, and devise alternative thinking and behavior patterns that distract patients from their tinnitus. The overall plan for therapy is to increase pleasant activity, learn relaxation techniques, and add cognitive skills to replace negative (or unhelpful) thinking. Studies suggest that behavioral and cognitive therapy are effective in reducing the severity of tinnitus and should certainly be considered as part of a treatment plan. Additionally, some doctors will prescribe medication than can also help reduce the anxiety and depression that tinnitus sufferers experience. However, there are some risks
associated with some of these drugs, and you should always consult with a doctor before adopting them.
Overriding The Tinnitus With Sound Therapy
Sound therapy is a broad term that describes the process of using external noise to interfere with and override the tinnitus symptoms. This interference can come in a variety of forms, such as:
- Masking: External noise is played loud enough to cover the tinnitus. This is essentially what the main character in Baby Driver used his music for.
- Distraction: External noise is played so that it distracts a person from their tinnitus symptoms.
- Habituation: External noise is used to help a person “habituate”, or tune out their tinnitus. In other words, their brain is trained to ignore the sounds they’re hearing.
- Neuromodulation: A specialized type of external noise is used to minimize the brain activity that is believed to be the underlying cause of tinnitus.
There are a variety of devices that can be used to accomplish these things, like:
- Hearing aids that deliver specific sounds into a person’s ear
- Sound machines which produce ambient noise
- Notched-music devices which produce specific frequencies and tones designed to minimize tinnitus symptoms
- Smartphone apps which produce ambient noise
The most practical of all these is hearing aids, which are the most portable and can provide semi-continuous relief all day.
Conclusion: Tinnitus Doesn’t Have To Be The End
We may not yet have a cure for tinnitus, but that doesn’t mean it has to ruin your life. Thankfully, there are numerous ways to minimize the severity of tinnitus, with hearing aids being one of the most effective options. If you’re experiencing tinnitus, don’t let it go untreated. It can cause significant life problems, including serious depression, anger, social isolation, and frustration. You can get the relief you need to continue living a vibrant, exciting life. Don’t let tinnitus be the end for you. Get treatment today.