The important thing to remember about tinnitus is that the brain’s response to these random electrical signals determines whether or not a person is annoyed by their tinnitus or not. Magnetoencephalography (MEG, for short) studies have been used to study tinnitus and the brain. MEG takes advantage of the fact that every time neurons send each other signals, their electric current creates a tiny magnetic field. MEG allows scientists to detect such changing patterns of activity in the brain 100 times per second. These studies indicated tinnitus affects the entire brain and helps with understanding why certain therapies are more effective than others.
Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). This technique, which uses a small device placed on the scalp to generate short magnetic pulses, is already being used to normalize electrical activity in the brains of people with epilepsy. Preliminary trials of rTMS in humans, funded by the NIDCD, are helping researchers pinpoint the best places in the brain to stimulate in order to suppress tinnitus. Researchers are also looking for ways to identify which people are most likely to respond well to stimulation devices.
Acoustic neural stimulation is a relatively new technique for people whose tinnitus is very loud or won’t go away. It uses a palm-sized device and headphones to deliver a broadband acoustic signal embedded in music. The treatment helps stimulate change in the neural circuits in the brain, which eventually desensitizes you to the tinnitus. The device has been shown to be effective in reducing or eliminating tinnitus in a significant number of study volunteers.
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Before long, you’re both mentally and physically stimulated in ways that make it even harder to relax and fall asleep. Like any other form of anxiety, stress about falling asleep creates mental arousal, bringing your brain to alertness. And it also creates physical arousal, raising heart rate and body temperature. This kind of anxiety can lead to behaviors that further undermine sleep, including:
The use of sound therapy by either hearing aids or tinnitus maskers helps the brain ignore the specific tinnitus frequency. Although these methods are poorly supported by evidence, there are no negative effects. There is some tentative evidence supporting tinnitus retraining therapy. There is little evidence supporting the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation. It is thus not recommended. As of 2017 there was limited evidence as to whether neurofeedback is or is not helpful.
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.
While there may be a wide range of causes, an important underlying factor for the development of tinnitus is brain plasticity.5,7 This property allows the brain to change and adapt, and it is essential to how we learn. Unfortunately, in some cases, such as with hearing loss, the auditory part of the brain may be altered as brain plasticity tries to compensate for the abnormal auditory inputs. This response leads to changes in brain activity in the auditory system (e.g., the auditory cortex) that can create a phantom percept: tinnitus. As such, while tinnitus may begin a problem at the auditory periphery, it persists because of changes throughout the auditory system. Treating tinnitus may require addressing both the initiator (e.g., hearing loss) and the driver (changes in the auditory brain).
FACT: Many people with tinnitus will also have a hearing loss. In fact, a recent French study showed that of 123 people with tinnitus surveyed only one did not have hearing loss. The British Tinnitus Association estimates that 90 percent of people with tinnitus also have a hearing loss. Moreover, research says that those who don’t may have a “hidden hearing loss.”
Experts recommend that patients with severe tinnitus become educated about tinnitus and how they best deal with its symptoms. This can include learning about biofeedback in order to control stress and your reaction to tinnitus sounds, talking with a counselor, or joining a support group. Coping strategies are most useful for managing emotional side effects of tinnitus, such as anxiety, trouble sleeping, lack of focus and depression.
Treatment of the underlying primary disorder may help to improve or cure rhythmic tinnitus. For example, the treatment of blood vessel disorders (e.g. dural arteriovenous shunts) can include certain medications or surgery. A surgical procedure known as sinus wall reconstruction can successfully treat pulsatile tinnitus due to sigmoid sinus diverticulum and dehiscence. In fact, most individuals have experienced complete resolution of their tinnitus following this surgery. Surgery may also be necessary for rare cases of pulsatile tinnitus caused by a tumor.
In addition to treating associated problems (such as depression or insomnia), there are several strategies that can help make tinnitus less bothersome. No single approach works for everyone, and you may need to try various combinations of techniques before you find what works for you. If you have age-related hearing loss, a hearing aid can often make tinnitus less noticeable by amplifying outside sounds.
To answer your question about NAC (N-acetyl-L-cysteine), I’ve seen little evidence suggesting that is effective for tinnitus. Instead – though the research is very limited – multiple anecdotal reports describe success with the herb ginkgo biloba. Try taking two tablets of standardized extract of ginkgo three times a day with meals (no more than a total dose of 240 mg a day). Ginkgo may work by increasing blood circulation to the head and neck. Give it at least a two-month trial. You might also explore cranial therapy, a gentle manipulative technique performed by osteopathic physicians. This approach seems to take the pressure or irritation off the auditory nerves. If high blood pressure is responsible for your tinnitus, try to get that under control through diet, exercise, and weight loss or medication if necessary.
Steven Doerr, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Doerr received his undergraduate degree in Spanish from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He graduated with his Medical Degree from the University Of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, Colorado in 1998 and completed his residency training in Emergency Medicine from Denver Health Medical Center in Denver, Colorado in 2002, where he also served as Chief Resident.
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.
Don’t ignore ear pain. Pain or discomfort in your ear can be a sign of conditions associated with tinnitus, including ear infections and earwax buildup. These conditions, and the discomfort they cause, can also interfere with sleep. Whether your ear pain is sharp or dull, constant or intermittent, accompanied by itching or not, take these symptoms to your doctor.
Supporting the idea that central reorganization is overestimated as "the" cause of tinnitus, a recent study by Wineland et al showed no changes in central connectivity of auditory cortex or other key cortical regions (Wineland et al, 2012). Considering other parts of the brain, Ueyama et al (2013) reported that there was increased fMRI activity in the bilateral rectus gyri, as well as cingulate gyri correlating with distress. Loudness was correlated with values in the thalamus, bilateral hippocampus and left caudate. In other words, the changes in the brain associated with tinnitus seem to be associated with emotional reaction (e.g. cingulate), and input systems (e.g. thalamus). There are a few areas whose role is not so obvious (e.g. caudate). This makes a more sense than the Wineland result, but of course, they were measuring different things. MRI studies related to audition or dizziness must be interpreted with great caution as the magnetic field of the MRI stimulates the inner ear, and because MRI scanners are noisy.
It can often be very helpful to talk to someone who understands how you are feeling, who can reassure you about any anxieties you may have, and answer your questions. We can provide details of self-help groups and contacts in the UK, and we also run a helpline on 0800 018 0527. Most of the people who run groups or are contacts have tinnitus themselves and have been helping people with the condition for a long time. Even if you don't want to take part in group activities, it can be a comfort to know there is someone you can contact.
But it’s still a significant improvement. And Kilgard says he and others are working to make the treatment even more effective. He suspects this type of therapy is not too far off from being available to patients outside of research studies. “It’s in the late stages of development,” he says. “It could be available to the public in as little as a year or two.”
Avoid a too-quiet bedroom. People with tinnitus may find it easier to sleep in a less quiet bedroom, and may benefit from white noise or other sleep-friendly sounds that help mask and minimize their tinnitus. To my patients who are looking to introduce soothing sounds to their sleep environment, I recommend the iHome Zenergy Sleep System, which combines relaxing sounds with aromatherapy and sleep-promoting light therapy.
Use other relaxation techniques. Tinnitus is understandably anxiety provoking, often a source of frustration and stress throughout the day and night. Reducing anxiety, and finding ways to relax, have benefits for both tinnitus and sleep. Relaxation exercises can reduce the aggravation of tinnitus, and make you more able to fall asleep. A few of the relaxation techniques my patients find most effective and easy to use are:
Paquette et al (2017) reported a prospective study of 166 patients who had brain surgery involving removal of the medial temporal lobe. The prevalence of tinnitus increased from approximately from 10 to 20% post surgery. This study did not include a control -- a natural question would be -- suppose a different part of the brain were removed. One would also think that drilling of the skull from any source might increase tinnitus. We are presently dubious that the medial temporal lobe suppresses tinnitus.
If you have tinnitus, you might be feeling frustrated and helpless, but there is hope! The first step is to consult a hearing care professional at one of our consumer-reviewed clinics. There are also audiologists who specialize in managing tinnitus and many non-medical ways to help you regain your quality of life. Learn more through the links here and, when you’re ready, let us help you connect with a professional in your area.