But one of the awesome powers of the human brain is its adaptability. “It can learn and reorganize itself every time you practice something new,” Kilgard says. His research, including a study published in February 2014 in the journal Neuromodulation, has shown this adaptability may be key to helping the brain “turn down” the hyperactivity that can lead to tinnitus, he says. (4)
Between 2007 and 2011, the researchers recruited 492 Dutch adults who had been diagnosed with tinnitus. The patients had to fulfil several criteria, including having no underlying disease that was causing their tinnitus, no other health issues that precluded their participation, and to have received no treatment for their tinnitus in the five previous years. Some 66% of adults originally screened for the study participated after screening.
Tinnitus is a ringing, buzzing, hissing, swishing, clicking, or other type of noise that seems to originate in the ear or head. Most of us will experience tinnitus or sounds in the ears at some time or another. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), about 10% of adults in the U.S. - nearly 25 million Americans - have experienced tinnitus lasting at least five minutes in the past year. Tinnitus is identified more frequently in white individuals, and the prevalence of tinnitus in the U.S. is almost twice as frequent in the South as in the Northeast.
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Some patients choose to get involved in “tinnitus retraining,” which involves wearing a device in the ears that provides soothing music or noise, along with undergoing counseling. The goal is to help your body and brain learn to get accustomed to tinnitus noise, which reduces your negative reactions to unwanted sounds. Support and counseling during the process can be helpful for reducing anxiety. Researchers are now learning more about the benefits of coherent cognitive behavioral therapy interventions to help treat distress associated with tinnitus. (3)
According to the American Tinnitus Association, most cases of tinnitus are caused by hearing loss. Occasionally though, tinnitus is caused by an irritation to the auditory system. Tinnitus can sometimes be a symptom of a problem with the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). If your tinnitus is caused by TMJ, then a dental procedure or realignment of your bite may alleviate the problem.
Sound therapies are one method that has previously been shown to reduce the severity of tinnitus. While not all sound therapies have gone through rigorous clinical testing, they have far greater traction and adoption in the tinnitus community. There are two types of sound therapy approaches: (1) maskers that are intended to block out the tinnitus and have the patient learn to ignore their tinnitus, and (2) sound therapies that utilize the same brain plasticity that is thought to be causing the tinnitus for the purpose of reducing it. Both approaches can be delivered via electronic devices that can produce sound. There has been an increase in tinnitus maskers that are built into hearing aids. These built-in maskers generate different sounds including white noise and random tones. Unfortunately, due to their design, hearing aids are still limited to providing masking at frequencies below 8 kHz.
Tinnitus can be extremely disturbing to people who have it. In many cases it is not a serious health problem, but rather a nuisance that may go away. However, some people with tinnitus may require medical or surgical treatment. Sixteen million Americans seek medical treatment each year for tinnitus, and about one-quarter of those experience it so severely it interferes with their daily activities.
Acoustic Neural Stimulation. This relatively new treatment has shown to be effective in reducing, and in some cases eliminating, symptoms in patients whose tinnitus just won’t go away or is very loud. The treatment utilizes a device small enough to fit into the palm of your hand that delivers a broadband acoustical signal embedded in special music you can listen to via headphones. The treatment eventually desensitizes you to the ringing in your ears by stimulating changes in the neural circuits in your brain.
Vitamin Supplements. Vitamin supplements, like Lipo-Flavonoid Plus, contain the vitamins that some studies have shown to be beneficial to inner ear health. These include Vitamin C, B-1, B-2, B-6, B-12, zinc, niacin and calcium. And while I am a proponent of vitamins, I advise my patients to take a regular OTC multivitamin that costs $15, versus Lipo-Flavonoid Plus, which has the same ingredients, but costs up to $90 for the same number of pills, just because it’s packaged and marketed to people that suffer from tinnitus.
Note however that tinnitus nearly always consists of fairly simple sounds -- for example, hearing someone talking that no one else can hear would not ordinarily be called tinnitus -- this would be called an auditory hallucination. Musical hallucinations in patients without psychiatric disturbance is most often described in older persons, years after hearing loss.
This study has several strengths. It included a relatively large number of patients, reducing the possibility of bias by “masking” which treatment patients received, classifying participants according to the severity of their tinnitus and using highly standardised interventions. Also, the researchers used established scales to measure the severity of tinnitus and its impact on quality of life.
Masking Devices. Similar to the white noise machines listed above, there are now masking devices that can be worn in the ear, just like a hearing aid, that do almost the same thing. They produce low-level white noise that can suppresses your tinnitus symptoms by training your brain to focus on them instead of the ringing in your ears. These are perfect if you can’t always have a white noise machine running near you.
Patients with head or neck injury may have particularly loud and disturbing tinnitus (Folmer and Griest, 2003). Tinnitus due to neck injury is the most common type of "somatic tinnitus". Somatic tinnitus means that the tinnitus is coming from something other than the inner ear. Tinnitus from a clear cut inner ear disorder frequently changes loudness or pitch when one simply touches the area around the ear. This is thought to be due to somatic modulation of tinnitus. We have encountered patients who have excellent responses to cervical epidural steroids, and in persons who have both severe tinnitus and significant cervical nerve root compression, we think this is worth trying as treatment.
If the source of the problem remains unclear, you may be sent to an otologist or an otolaryngologist (both ear specialists) or an audiologist (a hearing specialist) for hearing and nerve tests. As part of your examination, you may be given a hearing test called an audiogram. An imaging technique, such as an MRI or a CT scan, may also be recommended to reveal any structural problem.