Tinnitus remains a symptom that affects the lives of millions of people. Research is directed not only at its treatment, but also at understanding why it occurs. Research by doctors at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, Dalhousie University (Canada), and Southeast China University have published research using electrophysiology and functional MRI to better understand what parts of the brain are involved in hearing and the production of tinnitus. Their research has found that much larger areas of the brain are involved with the process of hearing than previously believed, which may help direct future diagnostic and therapeutic options.
The multidisciplinary approach required input from many different professionals including audiologists, psychologists, speech therapists and physical therapists. Which particular care elements of the intervention had the greatest effect is unknown. A multidisciplinary approach such as the intervention trialled here may have resource implications if it were introduced into standard clinical practice.
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.
It’s the same mechanism that’s happening in people who feel a phantom limb sensation after losing a limb, explains Susan Shore, PhD, a professor of otolaryngology, molecular physiology, and biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. With tinnitus the loss of hearing causes specific brain neurons to increase their activity as a way of compensating, she explains. “These neurons also synchronize their activity as they would if there were a sound there, but there is no external sound,” she adds.
Ear canal obstructions, infections, injuries or surgeries. This can include ossicle dislocation within the ear that affects hearing or recurring ear infections (like swimmer’s ear) either in the outside or inside of the ear canal (otitis media or otitis externa). Other ear disorders tied to tinnitus include otosclerosis (causes changes to the bones inside the ears), tympanic membrane perforation or labrynthitis (chronic infections or viruses that attack tissue in the ears).
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.
Individuals were recruited from within and around Hamilton, Ontario via online announcements and audiology clinics. Applicants were initially interviewed via telephone to screen for all inclusion and exclusion criteria for the study in order to determine whether they qualified for on-site screening. The on-site screening, and characterization of participants’ hearing thresholds and tinnitus profiles were conducted in a lab at McMaster University using a computer-based tinnitus assessment tool. Participants were randomly allocated to the treatment or placebo-control group. The assignment of the treatment or placebo music package was completed by a distributor site independent of the research study site. Participants and research personnel were blinded to which music package the participants received.
The similarities between chronic pain and tinnitus have led researchers to develop a mindfulness-based tinnitus stress reduction (MBTSR) program. The results of a pilot study, which were published in The Hearing Journal, found that participants of an eight-week MBTSR program experienced significantly altered perceptions of their tinnitus. This included a reduction in depression and anxiety.
Most people who seek medical help for tinnitus experience it as subjective, constant sound like constant ringing in the ears or a buzzing sound in the ear, and most have some degree of hearing loss. Things that cause hearing loss (and tinnitus) include loud noise, medications that damage the nerves in the ear (ototoxic drugs), impacted earwax, middle ear problems (such as infections and vascular tumors), and aging. Tinnitus can also be a symptom of Meniere's disease, a disorder of the balance mechanism in the inner ear.
Limit use of earplugs. Earplugs are important to use to protect your hearing when you’re likely to be exposed to loud noises. (Remember, exposure to loud sounds, and noise-induced hearing loss, are common causes of tinnitus, and may make tinnitus worse if you already have the condition.) But otherwise, people with tinnitus are advised not to wear earplugs, including for sleep. Earplugs reduce your ability to hear external noise and can make tinnitus more noticeable.
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).
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.
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