In Canada, the level of funding or engagement towards tackling the problem of tinnitus is comparably minimal. But with recent headlines about the effects of tinnitus on those in police forces2 and frustration among veterans, this may change. Because of the progress made in tinnitus treatment and management research – including work done right here in Canada – the time is right to offer tinnitus sufferers effective options and the support they need. While many with tinnitus are not yet aware that there are ways to reduce or manage the constant ringing, hissing or buzzing in their ears, as more health care professionals make effective options available, word will spread. In time, tinnitus and its impact on quality of life can be reduced.
There are many different conditions and disorders that affect nerve channels leading to the ears, which can cause someone to hear abnormal ringing or other sounds in their ears. These conditions usually cause other symptoms at the same time (such as dizziness, hearing loss, headaches, facial paralysis, nausea and loss of balance), which doctors use as clues to uncover the underlying cause of tinnitus.
Imagine you’re settling in for a night’s rest. In your quiet bedroom, you’re tune right into those tinnitus noises—and you can’t shake your focus on them. You start to wonder about how you’ll ever fall asleep with these sounds in your ears. You think about the rest you’re missing out on because you’re not already asleep, and you wonder how you’ll have the energy to make it through your day.
Tinnitus habituation therapies, such as tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT), involve using low level sounds in a graduated fashion to decrease the perception of tinnitus. This differs from use of masking devices such as described earlier. TRT involves a wearable device that an affected individual can adjust so that the level of sound emitting from the device is about equal to or matches the tinnitus sound. This may be called the “mixing point” because the sound from the device and the tinnitus sound begin to mix together. An affected individual must repeatedly adjust the device so that the sound is at or just below the mixing point. TRT is supported by counseling with a trained professional who can teach the individual the proper techniques to maximize the effectiveness of TRT. Eventually, by following this method, affected individuals no longer need the external sound generating device. Affected individuals will become accustomed to the tinnitus sound (habituation), except when they choose to focus on it. Even then the sound will not be bothersome or troubling. The theory is akin to a person’s ability to ignore sounds such as the hum of air conditioner, the refrigerator motor turning on, or raindrops falling on the roof when driving a car in the rain.
Until recently, most tinnitus patients had little reason to believe doctors would ever be able to completely cure or reverse the affliction. Drug therapies had consistently failed, and so had more invasive procedures — including some surgeries to remove the auditory nerve that transmits sound from the ear to the brain, according to past research. (1,2)
Although mitochondrial DNA variants are thought to predispose to hearing loss, a study of polish individuals by Lechowicz et al, reported that "there are no statistically significant differences in the prevalence of tinnitus and its characteristic features between HL patients with known HL mtDNA variants and the general Polish population." This would argue against mitochondrial DNA variants as a cause of tinnitus, but the situation might be different in other ethnic groups.
If your doctor cannot find any medical condition responsible for your tinnitus, you may be referred to an otolaryngologist (commonly called an ear, nose, and throat doctor, or an ENT). The ENT will physically examine your head, neck, and ears and test your hearing to determine whether you have any hearing loss along with the tinnitus. You might also be referred to an audiologist who can also measure your hearing and evaluate your tinnitus.
Overdosing on certain prescription drugs, recreational drugs or alcohol. This can sometimes cause permanent damage to nerves that affect hearing. In some cases when a pregnant women uses drugs during pregnancy, this can cause tinnitus to develop in her child. Common drugs that might contribute to tinnitus include ototoxics, psychotropic drugs, aminoglycosides, certain antibiotics and vancomycin.
The best supported treatment for tinnitus is a type of counseling called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which can be delivered via the internet or in person. It decreases the amount of stress those with tinnitus feel. These benefits appear to be independent of any effect on depression or anxiety in an individual. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) also shows promise in the treatment of tinnitus. Relaxation techniques may also be useful. A clinical protocol called Progressive Tinnitus Management for treatment of tinnitus has been developed by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.
This personalized solution offers a selection of tinnitus relief sounds to support common management approaches. The flexible programming provides sound stimulation through select auditory options that can ease the effects of tinnitus. The sounds offer a variety of customized options and are used in conjunction with tinnitus retraining therapy to provide instructional counseling.
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.
White Noise Machines. These devices do a great job of simulating the sound of everything from ocean waves, to rain, to a thunder storm, to a crackling fire to an oscillating fan to just plain old static. The result is that your brain focuses on the sounds around you instead of the ringing in your head. You can even download apps on your iPhone that do the same thing so that you can always have a noise machine with you wherever you go. The constant background noise can not only bring back nostalgic feelings of joy, if you used to site around a crackling fire on holidays with your family, but also allow you to forget about your tinnitus.
One group of 247 patients received standard (usual) care for tinnitus. This included audiological checks, counselling, prescription of a hearing aid if indicated, prescription of a “masker” if requested by the patient (a device that generates neutral sounds to distract from the noise of the tinnitus), and counselling from social workers when required.
Masking. Masking devices, worn like hearing aids, generate low-level white noise (a high-pitched hiss, for example) that can reduce the perception of tinnitus and sometimes also produce residual inhibition — less noticeable tinnitus for a short time after the masker is turned off. A specialized device isn't always necessary for masking; often, playing music or having a radio, fan, or white-noise machine on in the background is enough. Although there's not enough evidence from randomized trials to draw any conclusions about the effectiveness of masking, hearing experts often recommend a trial of simple masking strategies (such as setting a radio at low volume between stations) before they turn to more expensive options.
It is also very common for jaw opening to change the loudness or frequency of tinnitus. This is likely a variant of somatic modulation of tinnitus (see above). The sensory input from the jaw evidently interacts with hearing pathways. The muscles that open the jaw are innervated by the same nerve, the motor branch of 5, that controls the tensor tympani in the ear. In other words, changing tension in the jaw may also change muscle tension in the ear.
Tinnitus is commonly described as a ringing in the ears, but it also can sound like roaring, clicking, hissing, or buzzing. It may be soft or loud, high pitched or low pitched. You might hear it in either one or both ears. Roughly 10 percent of the adult population of the United States has experienced tinnitus lasting at least five minutes in the past year. This amounts to nearly 25 million Americans.
Cartoon of the middle ear showing muscles that attach to ossicles (ear bones), and ear drum. The stapedius is attached to the stapes (of course -- horseshoe object above), while the tensor tympani is attached to the ear drum. While useful, be aware that there are multiple errors in this illustration from Loyola Medical School. With permission, from: http://www.meddean.luc.edu/lumen/meded/grossanatomy/dissector/mml/images/stap.jpg
Tinnitus masking or noise suppression devices are common treatment options for tinnitus sufferers. This type of device is worn in the ear like a hearing aid and produces either a constant signal or tonal beats to compete with the sounds you're hearing. The hearing care professional will use the pitch matching and loudness matching tests to set the signal at a level and pitch similar to the tinnitus you are perceiving.
As their name suggests, maskers conceal tinnitus through other sounds. They look similar to hearing aids, but they won’t enhance your hearing. In this way, they’re like band-aids, covering up the problem instead of actually solving it. In addition, some people find maskers frustrating, because they can soften important sounds, like speech. We do not recommend maskers for long-term use as they do not work in re-wiring the brain.
Patulous Eustachian tubes can be associated with tinnitus. The Eustachian tube is a small canal that connects the middle ear to the back of the nose and upper throat. The Eustachian tube normally remains closed. In individuals with a patulous Eustachian tube, the tube is abnormally open. Consequently, talking, chewing, swallowing and other similar actions can cause vibrations directly onto the ear drum. For example, affected individuals may hear blowing sounds that are synchronized with breathing.
Most tinnitus is "sensorineural," meaning that it's due to hearing loss at the cochlea or cochlear nerve level. But tinnitus may originate in other places. Our bodies normally produce sounds (called somatic sounds) that we usually don't notice because we are listening to external sounds. Anything that blocks normal hearing can bring somatic sounds to our attention. For example, you may get head noise when earwax blocks the outer ear.
Biofeedback and stress management. Tinnitus is stressful, and stress can worsen tinnitus. Biofeedback is a relaxation technique that helps control stress by changing bodily responses. Electrodes attached to the skin feed information about physiological processes such as pulse, skin temperature, and muscle tension into a computer, which displays the output on a monitor. Patients learn how to alter these processes and reduce the body's stress response by changing their thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques may also help.
If the cause of your tinnitus is excessive earwax, your doctor will clean out your ears by suction with a small curved instrument called a curette, or gently flush it out with warm water. If you have an ear infection, you may be given prescription ear drops containing hydrocortisone to help relieve the itching and an antibiotic to fight the infection.