Roughly 45 million Americans suffer from tinnitus, which is the perception of sound where no outside sound source is present. This phantom sound is normally perceived as a ringing sound, but can also materialize as a buzzing, hissing, whistling, swooshing, or clicking.
The first thing to know about tinnitus is that it’s a symptom, not a disease. As such, tinnitus may indicate an underlying medical condition that, when treated, cures the tinnitus. Earwax accumulation or other blockages, blood vessel disorders, certain medications, and other underlying conditions can all trigger tinnitus, so the first step is ruling out any conditions that would would need medical or surgical treatment.
In most instances of tinnitus, however, no specific cause can be revealed. In these instances, tinnitus is presumed to be caused by damage to the nerve cells of hearing in the inner ear. Age-related hearing loss, noise-induced hearing loss, and one-time exposure to very loud sounds can all cause tinnitus.
Whenever tinnitus is induced by nerve cell damage, or is associated with hearing loss, tinnitus often cannot be cured—but that doesn’t mean people must suffer without help. While there is no definitive cure for most instances 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 remains.
The following are some of the treatment options for tinnitus:
The majority of cases of tinnitus are connected with some type of hearing loss. In patients with hearing loss, a lesser amount of sound stimulation reaches the brain, and in response, experts believe that the brain changes physically and chemically to accommodate the lack of stimulation. It is this maladaptive response 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 noticeable. But when hearing aids are used, the amplified sound signals cause the sounds of tinnitus to blend into the richer background sounds. Hearing aids for tinnitus patients can then present multiple benefits, including improved hearing, enhanced auditory stimulation, and a “masking effect” for tinnitus.
Sound therapy is a wide-ranging term used to describe several methods to making use of external sound to “mask” the tinnitus. Over time, the brain can learn to recognize the sounds of tinnitus as unimportant in comparison to the contending sound, thereby lessening 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 using 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 sent wirelessly to the hearing aids.
The kinds of masking sounds utilized can vary, including white noise, pink noise, nature sounds, and music. Sounds can also be specifically programmed to match the sound frequency of the patient’s tinnitus, supplying personalized masking relief. Seeing as each patient will respond differently to different masking sounds, it’s imperative that you work with a knowledgeable hearing professional.
Several behavioral therapies exist to help the patient deal with the psychological and emotional components of tinnitus. One example is mindfulness-based stress reduction, whereby the individual learns to accept the condition while developing helpful coping techniques.
You may have also heard the term Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT), which combines cognitive-behavioral therapy with sound masking therapy. With Tinnitus Retraining Therapy, patients learn to develop healthy cognitive and emotional reactions to tinnitus while using sound therapy to train their brains to reclassify tinnitus as insignificant, so that it can be consciously ignored.
Combined with the more specific sound and behavioral therapies, sufferers can participate in general wellness activities that frequently lessen the severity of tinnitus. These activities include healthy diets, frequent exercise, social activity, recreational activities, and any other activities that foster improved health and reduced stress.
There are at present no FDA-approved medications that have been shown to cure or alleviate tinnitus directly, but there are drugs that can treat stress, anxiety, and depression, all of which can make tinnitus worse or are caused by tinnitus itself. In fact, some antidepressant and antianxiety medicines have been demonstrated to deliver some relief to patients with severe tinnitus.
A flurry of encouraging research is being performed in labs and universities across the globe, as researchers continue to seek out 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 current treatments rather than holding out for any experimental treatment to hit the market.
Here are a few of the experimental therapies presently being tested:
- Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS) delivers electromagnetic pulses into the affected brain tissue to lessen 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 preceding 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 results have been mixed and the risks of invasive procedures oftentimes overshadow the benefits.
The Optimal 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.