Tinnitus is a fairly common debilitating disorder affecting approximately 10% of the world’s general population on a regular basis. Less than 3% of the population have serious side-effects that can worsen the affected individual’s quality of life.
Tinnitus is more common in people over the age of 60 years, where up to 20% of the population might be affected, while chronic tinnitus can occur in any age group.
This article gives you a quick look into everything you need to know about tinnitus.
What is Tinnitus?
It is the perception of sound in the ears or head when there is no actual corresponding external source that is produce this sound, it’s more like a phantom sound. It can be heard in one or both ears.
For most people with tinnitus, they say that they can hear an annoying sound that is ringing, buzzing or whistling and they just cannot take their mind off it. The sound can range from a low rumble to a high pitch squeal and the severity of these sounds can range from very slight thuds to extremely strong sounds.
Some people can experience tinnitus in such severe ways that it would make normal day to day activities unbearable to perform.
What causes Tinnitus?
Hearing loss is the most common cause of tinnitus. Some researchers say that prolonged exposure to loud noise or music maybe a reason.
However, it not the ear that is actually responsible for tinnitus in majority of cases. The causes for most chronic tinnitus can be found in a very specific area in the brain that process sound information called the auditory cortex.
The auditory cortex or our brain’s sound center is divided into various sub-sections, with each section responsible for processing a certain range of sound pitch.
Loud noise, head trauma, ear infection, stress, aging or even certain medications can cause the partial loss of communication between the ears and a particular sub-section of sound center in the brain.
When the nerve cells (neurons) in this area do not receive sufficient sound information from the ears, instead of being inactive or silent, they start to behave in a very strange manner.
They become randomly active (neural synchrony) and start generating sound signals on their own and this can be perceived as an annoying sound in the ears or head.
An interesting observation was that, when normal people who never experienced tinnitus in their lives were put in a specially designed quiet room (anechoic chamber) they actually started to experience tinnitus after being in the room for few minutes.
Types of Tinnitus
There are basically two main types of tinnitus and they are:
Majority of people (95%) suffering from tinnitus come under this category. An outside observer cannot hear the sounds the affected individual can hear. This type of tinnitus is usually caused by damage to the hearing apparatus inside the ear.
If the type of sound the individual can hear is of a constant sound range or type, this type of tinnitus can be called as tonal tinnitus.
Some people with hearing loss or increased sensitivity to sound may experience a type of tinnitus know as musical hallucinations (MH).
low-frequency tinnitus: Some people may hear low frequency sounds which is characterized by a low humming or rumbling sound and this can be extremely annoying and can be temporary or chronic in nature.
In some cases, the low-frequency sounds might be actual sounds perceived by the individual and this type of noise may not actually be tinnitus but is often confused with tinnitus.
These people simply are more sensitive to low frequency sounds and have a much more sensitive hearing ability compared to others and are able to pick up background noises which are normally not heard by others.
Since this is not an actual case of tinnitus, it much more easy to manage and treat this condition. Anything to divert the attention in order to stop thinking or monitoring these sounds can help solve this issue.
This is a rare form of tinnitus where the sound you can hear can also be heard by physician examining you. It could be caused by earwax blockage or jaw joint disorders (Temporomandibular Joint Disorder). This type of tinnitus can be completely cured after the underlying condition is resolved.
Somatic tinnitus: It can be caused by muscle twitching in ear or by muscle spasms that can cause muscle tension in jaw and neck. In some ways, it is related to objective tinnitus.
Some people with somatic tinnitus may experience a type of tinnitus called pulsatile tinnitus in which they can experience a rhythmic tinnitus that is in sync with the person’s heartbeat. It is usually caused by changes to blood vessels near the ear.
Neurological tinnitus: Can be caused by Inner ear disorders like Acoustic neuroma (Vestibular schwannoma) and Meniere's disease which is a difficult condition to manage and only symptomatic treatment is possible for the underlying causes.
Is there treatment for Tinnitus?
Simple answer would be yes there is hope, there has been various experimental studies done around the world that has shown promising results.
However, it is important to note that currently there are no drugs, supplements or surgical procedures available that can effectively treat or cure tinnitus.
All available options that are effective are based on behavioral strategies combined with sound generating electronic devices and are very effective at managing tinnitus.
Scientist are starting to understand the mechanism of tinnitus and what is actually happening inside the brain when someone is experiencing tinnitus.
They believe that they may be able to reverse some of the changes to the sound center of the brain and finally cure chronic tinnitus.
Here some techniques that has shown to offer good relief in individuals with chronic tinnitus:
Notched Music Therapy for Tinnitus
This is a therapy for managing tinnitus based on specially altered audio track. You can select your favorite music tracks and the audio files are altered using a special software that can filter out specific type of tones or sounds from the music that is similar to sounds of tinnitus for you.
You have to listen to this music and train your brain for 2-3 hours every day over the course of few months.
Over time, you will start noticing reductions in the intensity of annoying tinnitus sounds while you brain learns to rewire (neuroplasticity) itself.
It is important to select music you really enjoy and have positive effect on your mood to make sure that over time your brain does not start to filter out the music as it would do with any kind of unpleasant or background noise. Plus, you will need to feel motivated to listen to the music during the training period.
Caution: There are many notched audio files freely available online on various media sharing platforms. However, it is important to note that in order for notched much therapy to be effective, it has to be custom tailored for each individual depending on the type of tinnitus sounds they hear.
Masking Therapy for Tinnitus
This therapy is based on low level white noise generating device which is simply a collection of wide ranges of sound frequencies that the human ear can detect.
Masking Therapy can reduce the intensity of tinnitus and in many cases offer temporary relief even after the device is switched off.
White noise can be generated using a special device similar to hearing aids or simply by setting an improperly tuned radio to play at very low volume between the stations.
Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT)
This is a therapy based on behavioral strategies. It trains your brain on how to manage your tinnitus on a conscious and subconscious levels. The therapy consists of retraining counseling and sound therapy.
In retraining counseling the patient is taught how to associate positive emotion creating thoughts with the tinnitus sounds, in order to remove the fear and negative thought associated with tinnitus.
The second part of the therapy consist of teaching the patients to mask tinnitus sounds with the help of background noise, thereby helping the patient form a habit of ignoring the sounds at a subconscious level.
This therapy is time consuming and may take up to 18 months of training to achieve satisfactory results. Many patients are discouraged by the long duration and slow progress during the therapy.
Biofeedback & Neurofeedback Therapy for Tinnitus
These are two related therapies that have shown positive results on patients with tinnitus. Special electrodes are connected to the patient’s head and body and these electrodes are connected to computer that measures and analyze various vital information from the patient like EEG, ECG, temperature etc.
Read more about EEG: 9 Types of EEG tests - Everything about Brainwave Monitoring
Read more about ECG: 10 types of ECG devices for Heart Rhythm Monitoring
The patient is asked to vary thoughts and emotions, while the computer monitors all the changes and gives appropriate feed back to the patient.
The therapy is split into many sessions over the course of few weeks, where the patient slowly learns how to control certain involuntary functions in their body. This approach has been very effective in teaching the patients to help manage tinnitus.
Acoustic Coordinated Reset (CR) Neuromodulation for Tinnitus
This is a technique developed by Prof. Peter Tass and his team at Forschungszentrum Jülich, Germany.
It is used to correct tonal tinnitus by trying to retrain auditory nerve cells to respond and transmit audio signals as they would normally do.
A specially designed portable acoustic device is used with a comfortable earphone to stimulate the affected nerve cells through the ear. Clinical trials have shown very good results and the device is FDA-approved and available for tinnitus patients.
Read more: http://www.neurotherapiesreset.com/
Read more: http://www.fz-juelich.de/
Electric stimulation by cochlear implant (CI) for Tinnitus
A very compact electronic medical device is implanted inside the ear (cochlear implant) and this device is used to simulate the auditory nerve. Individuals participating in the study responded with positive results during an experimental clinical study.
This is an invasive method requiring a minor surgery performed on an outpatient basis. The technique is still in experimental stage and might be suitable for people with severe tinnitus.
Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) for Tinnitus
A low frequency magnetic coil placed over the head is used to stimulate the auditory nerves of the patient to repair the damaged neurons causing tinnitus. This is a noninvasive procedure and is still in the experimental stages with very promising results so far.
Neck and Head Massage for Tinnitus
People with somatic tinnitus can have muscle tensions or spasms in the area of neck and jaw muscles. Therapeutic neck and jaw muscle massage can be beneficial in such cases.
Tip 1: Just stop thinking about it!
Most expert would say that the best way to cure tinnitus naturally is to just forget about it, in other words, just stop thinking about it and it should go away in many cases. However, this approach might be only effective for people with light to mild tinnitus.
The reason this is effective is because, once you start getting concerned about the issue, your brain starts to prioritize the issue because you are thinking about it more often and then you start noticing it more often. You can end up in this vicious cycle where it just gets worse over time.
If you can teach yourself to stop thinking about the sounds, over time your brain will just stop noticing it all together just like all the other background noises in our environment that we can easily ignore.
Tip 2: Use ambient noise
Another coping mechanism would be to introduce ambient noise into your daily routine whenever tinnitus starts bothering you. Try to play some background music or radio, so that you can take your mind off it.
Tip 3: Don’t over mask tinnitus
Advice from Janet Davila, AuD, C.C.C.-A, Audiology, The Austin Diagnostic Clinic.
If you are using an ambient noise to ignore or habituate to the tinnitus noise, then make sure you do not increase the masking noise to a point where the tinnitus noise completely disappears, because you will not be able to teach your brain to ignore the tinnitus sound when you hear it the next time.
The optimum masking sound level would be just above the level where you can barely hear the tinnitus sounds. At this point, your brain can decide that the tinnitus sound is not important and can chose to ignore the tinnitus sounds easily.
Tip 4: Avoid loud noise
You need to make sure that your ears are always protected when you are located in a high noise environment in order to prevent any further damage and increase the tinnitus.
Avoid using headphones or earphones on high volume levels over extended period of time.
It is important that young people take appropriate care and protect their ears when near sources of loud noise like live rock concerts or discotheques.
Tip 5: Trying to reduce your overall stress level
Tinnitus can often start when you are stressed or after a period of being stressed. It’s not clear what is the actually relationship between stress and tinnitus, but there is enough evidence to support that stress can increase the risk of tinnitus.
People often worry about the impact of tinnitus on their quality of life, unfortunately this behavior only contributes to making tinnitus worse.
Tip 6: Avoid caffeinated drinks
Caffeine in coffee, tea, cola and chocolates can act a stimulants making symptoms of tinnitus even worse.
In a small test, patients who have been suffering from tinnitus for more than 6 months were selected and asked to reduce their coffee consumption. The researchers concluded after the short one-month trial that reducing coffee consumption can help reduce the intensity of tinnitus.
However, a more detailed and larger study is required to confirms the results.
Tip 7: Quit smoking, if you smoke
This is a tip that will help you a lot more than solving your tinnitus issue. There are many solid evidences pointing to links between smoking and many chronic diseases. Quit smoking and take a step forward in the right direction.
Tip 8: Maintain proper ear hygiene
Our ears can produce a natural protective wax that can help prevent damage to the eardrums. However, if you have too much of earwax inside your ears, it can be a contributing factor for tinnitus.
Use a specialized cleaning solution that is available at your local drugs store and always avoid using Q-Tips as this can cause damage to the eardrums if not used properly.
Tip 9: Check for metabolic abnormalities
Tinnitus can be triggered by various metabolic abnormalities like an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism), an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism), high amounts of fats in blood (hyperlipidemia) and deficiency of red blood cells (anemia). Talk with your doctor about it and get tested if necessary.
Tip 10: Reevaluate your medicines
Tinnitus can be caused as a side effect of many medications. Some commonly used nonprescription medicines like ibuprofen, aspirin and naproxen can cause tinnitus. Many prescription medicines can also cause tinnitus.
Talk to your doctor about all the medicines you have been using to make sure that they are not triggering your tinnitus. It may be possible to switch to another medicine if that is the cause.