You’re enjoying a nice dinner at home with your family. Everyone is exchanging tidbits about their day, but all you can hear is a buzzing noise. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time you’ve been drowned out by a weird whir. But is it all in your head?
The simple answer is: Probably not. If you’ve had a persistent ringing in your ears, you could be one of the nearly 50 million Americans experiencing tinnitus. It’s especially common in people 55 years of age or older, and it’s the number one disability among veterans.
The American Tinnitus Association (ATA) describes tinnitus as “the perception of sound when no actual external noise is present.” You can experience it in a number of ways:
In rare cases, people with tinnitus are disturbed by music no one else can hear.
The exact definition of tinnitus varies with each individual, as does the severity. Tinnitus can be an acute, or temporary, condition that may have little impact on your everyday lift. But for about 20 million people, tinnitus is chronic and burdensome. Tinnitus can be further broken down into two main categories.
Types of Tinnitus
Subjective tinnitus is defined by noises that are only perceivable to the individual. This is most often caused by hearing loss or a neurological dysfunction. More than 99% of reported tinnitus is considered subjective.
It’s rare, but you might have objective tinnitus. It occurs when you have head or ear noises that are detectible to both you and other people. Usually, these noises happen because of abnormal body systems, like increased blood flow or a particular musculoskeletal movement.
Causes of Tinnitus
Tinnitus is not a disease itself but a symptom of another health condition. That’s why it’s important to consider all the potential causes of this sensory disorder, including:
- Certain prescription medications
- Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ)
- Hearing loss
- Obstruction in the ear canal
- Head or neck trauma
- Barometric trauma
- Traumatic brain injury
- Blood vessel disorder
Most often tinnitus is caused by hearing loss, and it’s your brain’s way of filling in the missing sounds. Hearing loss can develop in a number of ways, ranging from something as simple as excessive ear wax to a serious head injury that blunts hearing nerves.
Sometimes tinnitus is because of a physical disorder, like TMJ. This is called ‘peripheral’ because it effects the periphery of your nervous system.
Your first step should be to determine the cause of your tinnitus. An otolaryngologist or ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor, is the right medical professional to see.
Your doctor can help you find a treatment for your tinnitus, but it’s useful to know about some of your options before your visit!
1. Lifestyle Changes for Tinnitus
According to the ATA, “A health-conscious diet can reduce hypertension and weight, increase blood flow, heighten energy levels and improve emotional well-being – all of which can benefit your tinnitus.” A 2016 study found a positive association between tinnitus and arterial hypertension. By limiting your sodium intake and managing stress, you can reduce your risk of hypertension and tinnitus at the same time.
If you’re an avid coffee-drinker, take note of how it affects your tinnitus. Some people have reported caffeine to be a trigger. Others have found solace in caffeine. In fact, a one study concluded that women who drank 3 to 4 cups of coffee per day (450 to 599 milligrams of caffeine) reduced their odds of developing tinnitus.
Exercise is also a factor. People who regularly engage in some form of fitness improve their physical and emotional well-being. Being more emotionally healthy can make it easier to manage the inconvenience of tinnitus. Exercise is also an effective form of stress management.
2. Stress Management for Tinnitus
Stress increases inflammation throughout the body, which can make even the most minor health condition more severe. By managing stress, you could find relief from tinnitus. Consider practicing meditation, breathing techniques, or bumping up your exercise routine.
3. Sound Therapy for Tinnitus
Sound therapy involves listening to sounds that produce a specific response. There are several different types of sounds that may be used:
- Broadband noise is the most common because it’s the easiest to ignore. It sounds something like a static radio.
- Music is also effective because it can relax your nervous system. Usually, music therapy is all instrumental.
- White noise machines are also useful devices. These noises often include the sound of falling rain or waves crashing, but they could also be in the form of a fan, a humidifier, or an air conditioner.
- Hearing aids work by improving the volume of external noises. That dulls or masks the sounds of tinnitus. Hearing aids are especially helpful if you have minor hearing loss that may or may not be the cause of your tinnitus.
According to recent research, certain methods of sound therapy are more effective than others. The American Journal of Audiology published a study that found a greater improvement in tinnitus loudness with the use of customized masking noises.
In the study, participants underwent sound therapy using a noise that exactly matched the intensity of their individual tinnitus. The sound was replayed to them through custom-fit earbuds that they wore while sleeping. When the study was over, the people who used custom, tinnitus-matched devices reported greater improvement than those who used the bedside sound generator (BSG). For the purpose of this study, the BSG represented more traditional sound therapy.
4. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for Tinnitus
CBT is often used for treating depression and anxiety disorders, but it’s long been used for treating tinnitus. In 2018, researchers confirmed the effects of CBT on tinnitus with a study of 100 patients with chronic subjective tinnitus. The results showed that CBT can significantly relieve the symptoms of this type of tinnitus, especially when it’s combined with masking therapy and sound treatment.
With cognitive behavioral therapy, you’ll have one-on-one counseling sessions with a mental health professional. They’ll help you learn coping strategies and relaxation techniques to handle your tinnitus. The goal is to teach your brain how to react to the persistent ringing more constructively, so eventually you won’t be bothered by it at all. As was the case in the study, CBT is sometimes combined with sound therapy.
5. Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) for Tinnitus
Transcranial magnetic stimulation is a form of neuromodulation. Thatliterally means to modulate—or normalize—nerve activity. TMS therapy delivers electromagnetic pulses to your brain, typically to the prefrontal cortex. It’s a non-invasive, FDA-approved form of treatment for depression. Recent research has found it to be beneficial for tinnitus patients as well.
The effects of TMS on tinnitus have been evaluated for well over a decade, including a study that demonstrated the possibility of low-frequency repetitive TMS (rTMS) on chronic tinnitus. Over the years, rTMS had varied effects. But in 2013, rTMS treatment for chronic tinnitus sufferers revealed that an increase in alpha frequency correlated with the greatest tinnitus relief. The study evaluated five different stimulation protocols and used delta, theta, alpha, and gamma frequencies. An increase in alpha power was the most beneficial.
Research continued to prove the effects of TMS on tinnitus. A 2016 study also found that rTMS significantly reduced the loudness of tinnitus. This study proved most helpful for chronic tinnitus sufferers who had normal hearing and no sleep disturbances. A single-case report in 2017 showed that combining rTMS and CBT could effectively treat chronic tinnitus with a co-occurring sleep disorder.
Living with Tinnitus
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for tinnitus, but these treatment options are valuable tools to consider. In some cases, combining treatment methods may be the best option. Speak with your healthcare professional first. If they think TMS could help your tinnitus, the experts at HPR Treatment Centers can answer any of your questions. Remember, tinnitus is manageable, and you don’t have to tackle it alone.