What is tinnitus?
If you have ringing, buzzing, roaring, or any type of sound in your ears that is not in the environment…you have tinnitus (usually pronounced as “TINN-it-us”, but sometimes as “tinn-EYE-tus”). Some people only notice the tinnitus occasionally, while others are always aware of the sound. In fact, some people are not only aware of it, they are also very bothered by this constant sound in their ears (or sometimes it feels like it’s in the middle of the head). Regardless of whether it is constant or intermittent, bothersome or non-bothersome, high-pitched or “white noise”…tinnitus is real, and it affects A LOT of people (click here for some statistics on tinnitus and hearing loss).
Is there really a tinnitus treatment?
There is no true cure for tinnitus at this time, but — since it affects so many people — there is quite a bit of research focused on finding a cure (check out the American Tinnitus Association’s website for more info on this). Until then, we need to approach tinnitus in terms of helping reduce the impact that it may have on the person’s life. In other words, since we can’t cure it, we need to manage it so that it is not as distracting or bothersome. At times, tinnitus is more than just a nuisance, it is actually disruptive. It may affect concentration (which can in turn have an impact on work, reading, or focusing on a task), or it may affect sleep (either in terms of falling asleep, or staying asleep…or both). It can also have a negative impact on a person’s emotional well-being, such as increased stress, feeling “on edge”, fatigue, hopelessness, etc. An audiologist who specializes in tinnitus treatment focuses on strategies to help reduce these negative effects. The goal is to help the individual put the tinnitus into the background instead of on the forefront of his/her mind. This process is called “habituation”.
Not a new concept…
Habituation actually happens all the time. Shortly after putting on a watch or piece of jewelry, we don’t even notice it anymore. That is because our body “gets used to it” and then ignores it…unless we have a reason to pay attention to it, such as checking the time on your wristwatch. To a certain extent, the human body can habituate to many things (even undesirable things)…but then there are other things that are very difficult to “tune out”. Generally speaking, the brain has an easier time disregarding things that are expected, acceptable, and worry-free. A ticking clock. The air conditioner in your home. A coworker tapping on a keyboard. If the brain knows what’s going on, and does not consider it to be a problem, we ignore it and move on with our life. Tinnitus, unfortunately, is often unexpected and worrisome because the brain does not understand where it is coming from…so it is very difficult to accept. Even if the person does not realize it, there may be some element of stress associated with the unidentified sound in the ears/head. Then there can be a snowball effect because the increase in stress can cause an increase in the perception of the tinnitus, which can cause even more stress, and so on and so forth. To help disrupt this cycle, we use a strategy called “sound therapy”.
The term “sound therapy” can really refer to a broad variety of options that allow a person to use various sound sources to help them habituate to their tinnitus. It may seem odd to think about treating the sound in your ears/head by adding MORE sound, but it is important to remember the goal of tinnitus treatment: reduce its negative impact on the sufferer’s life. A good way to think about it is in terms of contrast, and it may be easier if we consider a visual analogy.Imagine a dark room with one lit candle…that candle really stands out against the darkness. However, if someone turns on the light, the candle — though it is still lit — doesn’t stand out nearly as much. The size of the flame is the same, but the contrast is much different. The same can be true for tinnitus: a person has a constant sound that stands out above everything else, but sound therapy can help reduce the contrast.
So what ARE the options for tinnitus treatment?
As I mentioned, sound therapy may include any (or all) of a variety of different techniques. For example:
- A person may play soothing music at his workstation to help him concentrate on his work
- Using hearing aids can help increase the audibility (and stimulate the auditory system) and “drown out” tinnitus
- Someone may need a sound machine by her bed to help her get to sleep at night
- There are ear-level devices that a person may wear to help him everywhere he goes (and it can even double as a hearing aid, in which case it’s called a “combination device”)
The important thing is to visit your audiologist so that you can have your hearing/tinnitus evaluated. There may be other important considerations regarding your tinnitus, and the audiologist (especially one who specializes in tinnitus treatment) will help guide you through the process and help you develop a plan for your specific situation. Tinnitus does not have to be a disruption in your life…there may not be a cure, but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing we can do!