Imagine the loss of silence, that is, to never be able to enjoy the sounds of silence. The loss of silence is the life of the tinnitus sufferer. Tinnitus more commonly known as “ringing in the ears” has been reported by Statistics Canada to have affected 42 percent of Canadians between the ages of 3 and 80.
The affected persons range from those that experience a transient tinnitus to those that are completely debilitated by a persistent and relentless uncontrollable sound. The sound is often described as whooshing, hissing, buzzing or ringing in the ears, or a combination of them. Of this group, about one in five individuals experienced difficulty with sleep, concentration and mood changes caused by their tinnitus. These symptoms can negatively affect basic life functions such as socialization and relaxation. The good news is there are several options for treating tinnitus by alleviating the impact it has on quality of life.
Why are my ears ringing? Causes of tinnitus
A loud concert, a table saw, a gunshot blast – with repeated exposure, all of these can to lead to tinnitus. Exposure to loud noises is the biggest risk factor for developing tinnitus. Not all sufferers of tinnitus have a history of noise exposure, but the biggest culprit is noise. In fact, a study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine found tinnitus is twice as common among people who have been repeatedly exposed to loud noises, compared to those who have not. Trauma to the hearing system due to noise exposure causes a chain reaction of faulty "tinnitus-like" responses. These responses are quite simply the hearing system’s attempt to make up for what is lost. In most cases, cochlear and early retro cochlear damage are at the root of the problem. Age-related hearing loss can cause similar changes in the hearing system and thus also create a situation where an individual reports persistent, intrusive tinnitus. Treating hearing loss is an important first-step to better overall hearing health and getting one-step closer to identifying and treating hearing loss-related tinnitus symptoms.
Not all sufferers of tinnitus have a history of noise exposure, but they usually have some history of hearing loss due to ageing or noise.
Hearing aids as treatment for tinnitus
Hearing aids can help tinnitus sufferers by improving the disruption and annoyance caused by tinnitus in many ways. The first, and probably most prominent, is a masking effect. Restoring sound through amplification will increase environmental sounds that were most likely not previously heard. Hearing aids also reduce hearing effort and thus less focus is placed on the act of listening. People with tinnitus commonly report hearing their tinnitus more frequently when they experience higher levels of stress, like listening in a challenging environment. By reducing listening effort, the perception of tinnitus might also be reduced.
A goal with properly fit hearing aids would be to have a long-term adapting effect. Hearing aid wearers may report reduced tinnitus loudness post amplification use. The long-term goal of the amplification process paired with appropriate counseling is a reduction of tinnitus perception overtime. Hearing healthcare professionals often treat the tinnitus concern through the use of hearing aids. Properly fit hearing aids can be a good tinnitus management recommendation.
Sound therapy as treatment for tinnitus
Beyond the use of hearing aids, there are treatments that fall under the sound therapy category. Sound therapy options have shown to reduce tinnitus loudness or tinnitus bother. Sound therapy devices are systems that are often worn for several hours per day, where the stimulating sound like white noise, is measured in relationship to the degree of tinnitus. The outcome varies across devices, but there is plenty of ongoing research with sound therapy devices. Hearing aids can also provide forms of sound therapy embedded within the devices and are easily accessible for the individual.
Adding to the sound therapy approach, new research studies on bimodal device options have emerged. Bimodal devices stimulate the ears and a region on the head or neck simultaneously and may be helpful in reducing tinnitus loudness. Clinical trials are required to determine the overall effectiveness, but current laboratory findings are promising.
Cognitive therapy as treatment for tinnitus
One of the primary non-device treatment options is known as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). CBT has shown to be successful for those who suffer from chronic pain, similar to tinnitus experiences. CBT focuses on reducing the negative reactions that are a part of living with tinnitus. Through a structured series of appointments, CBT attempts to reduce tinnitus-related stress and anxiety for the individual. Several studies have shown CBT to be an effective treatment for tinnitus. A combination of sound therapy and structured forms of counselling are important parts of treatment designed to help manage tinnitus.
How to find treatment
Although there is no cure for tinnitus, help is available. Tinnitus research is ongoing and therapies to help reduce both the perception and annoyance are rapidly becoming more available. If your tinnitus is related to diseases, like Meniere’s disease, treating the primary disease is vital. The first step for someone experiencing tinnitus is to visit a local hearing healthcare professional to complete a diagnostic hearing test and discuss your options for treatment. A hearing care professional will often recommend a combination of hearing aids, sound therapy and structured counselling in a customized plan designed to help you manage tinnitus. Remember – tinnitus is a treatable condition.