Psychological research has looked at the tinnitus distress reaction (TDR) to account for differences in tinnitus severity. These findings suggest that at the initial perception of tinnitus, conditioning links tinnitus with negative emotions, such as fear and anxiety from unpleasant stimuli at the time. This enhances activity in the limbic system and autonomic nervous system, thus increasing tinnitus awareness and annoyance.
As an initial test of our treatment, we first conducted a small pilot study to see if there were measurable benefits within 3 to 6 months of using this therapy. While we did not inform participants of whether they would receive a treatment or unaltered music, every participant in fact received a treatment. Participants reported a drop in scores on the Tinnitus Handicap Inventory (THI) within 3 months of using their personalized sound therapy for about 2 hours a day. THI is a psychometrically robust and validated questionnaire that assesses the impact of tinnitus on daily living and the degree of distress suffered by the tinnitus patient. Furthermore, we saw increased benefits after 6 months of treatment use (Figure 1). This data suggested that our treatment may be engaging brain plasticity in a positive manner, thereby gradually reducing tinnitus over time. Armed with this information, we designed a more rigorous trial that is very uncommon among research in tinnitus therapies.
Loud noise is the leading cause of damage to the inner ear. Most patients with noise trauma describe a whistling tinnitus (Nicholas-Puel et al,. 2002). In a large study of tinnitus, avoidance of occupational noise was one of two factors most important in preventing tinnitus (Sindhusake et al. 2003). The other important factor was the rapidity of treating ear infections.
CBT could potentially help people with tinnitus deal with fears that their tinnitus might be caused by brain damage or might lead to deafness. During CBT, they might learn that the condition is common and that it is not associated with brain damage or deafness. They might also be exposed to the sound in a safe environment, so that it has less of an impact on their daily life. CBT also involves techniques such as applied relaxation and mindfulness training.
Many drugs have been studied for treating tinnitus. For some, treatment with low doses of anti-anxiety drugs -- such as Valium or antidepressants such as Elavil -- help reduce tinnitus. The use of a steroid placed into the middle ear along with an anti-anxiety medicine called alprazolam has been shown to be effective for some people. Some small studies have shown that a hormone called misoprostol may be helpful in some cases.
The accepted definition of chronic tinnitus, as compared to normal ear noise experience, is five minutes of ear noise occurring at least twice a week. However, people with chronic tinnitus often experience the noise more frequently than this and can experience it continuously or regularly, such as during the night when there is less environmental noise to mask the sound.
This tinnitus treatment we developed makes use of software that customizes a music-based therapy for each individual tinnitus sufferer. The software achieves this by incorporating a computational model of the “tinnitus brain.” This model captures changes in the auditory brain which may be causing the tinnitus.5,7 We do this by taking into account the individual’s audiogram and a pitch match of their tinnitus, which generates a tinnitus profile unique to him or her. The software then uses the model to predict how each music track can be altered spectrally to reduce tinnitus for that specific tinnitus profile. Delivering the treatment using headphones that could produce high frequencies (above 10–12 kHz) was an integral part of treatment effectiveness. With such headphones, the treatment could work by taking advantage of the same kind of brain plasticity that may contribute to the person's tinnitus in the first place without being limited by a lack of high-frequency sounds.8 By incorporating the latest tinnitus research into our software, we developed a treatment approach that provides greater promise in treating tinnitus than existing treatments with a one-size-fits-all approach.
When TRT was developed in the 1980s by neuroscientist Dr. Pawel Jastreboff (now at Emory University in Atlanta), it was designed to be administered according to a strict protocol. Today, the term TRT is being used to describe modified versions of this therapy, and the variations make accurate assessment of its effectiveness difficult. Individual studies have reported improvements in as many as 80% of patients with high-pitched tinnitus. In a Cochrane review of the one randomized trial that followed Jastreboff's protocol and met the organization's standards, TRT was much more effective in reducing tinnitus severity and disability than a technique called masking (see below).
As of 2014 there were no medications effective for idiopathic tinnitus. There is not enough evidence to determine if antidepressants or acamprosate are useful. While there is tentative evidence for benzodiazepines, it is insufficient to support usage. Usefulness of melatonin, as of 2015, is unclear. It is unclear if anticonvulsants are useful for treating tinnitus. Steroid injections into the middle ear also do not seem to be effective.
Some tinnitus sufferers have experienced relief through hearing aids, but studies indicate that such benefits are limited to those with low-frequency tinnitus.8 For those with a tinnitus pitch above 5–6 kHz or those with a hissing or buzzing tinnitus, the benefits of hearing aids are more limited or even nonexistent. This makes sense from a neuroscience point of view, as the hearing aid will typically not be making up for hearing loss at frequencies above 6–8 kHz; this prevents any possible effects on tinnitus types that are caused by changes to higher frequency regions in the auditory system. While hearing aids are essential to improving the lives of the hearing impaired, they are not typically the best option for tinnitus; especially when used alone.
Most tinnitus is subjective, meaning that only you can hear the noise. But sometimes it's objective, meaning that someone else can hear it, too. For example, if you have a heart murmur, you may hear a whooshing sound with every heartbeat; your clinician can also hear that sound through a stethoscope. Some people hear their heartbeat inside the ear — a phenomenon called pulsatile tinnitus. It's more likely to happen in older people, because blood flow tends to be more turbulent in arteries whose walls have stiffened with age. Pulsatile tinnitus may be more noticeable at night, when you're lying in bed and there are fewer external sounds to mask the tinnitus. If you notice any new pulsatile tinnitus, you should consult a clinician, because in rare cases it is a sign of a tumor or blood vessel damage.
Practice mindfulness meditation. I’ve written about the power of mindfulness mediation to reduce stress and improve sleep. A 2017 study found mindfulness meditation is also effective in helping people better manage tinnitus. Mindfulness meditation involves sitting comfortably, putting your attention on your natural breathing. When your mind wanders—to irritating tinnitus sounds, to worry about sleep, or wherever else it goes, gently return your attention to your breath. Start with a 5-minute session, and as you grow more comfortable with the practice, you can increase the time. You can practice mindfulness meditation anywhere, at any time of day—including in the shower!
Although there’s no proven cure for tinnitus, there are treatments that help make it easier to ignore. For example, you can wear devices in your ear(s) that produce soothing therapeutic noises to shift your focus away from the tinnitus. Other devices produce constant, soft noise to mask the tinnitus. Tinnitus sufferers who also have hearing loss sometimes find relief simply by wearing properly fitted hearing aids.