One of the most common complaints we hear from our patients is regarding tinnitus. The most frequently asked question is how to make tinnitus go away. Unfortunately, there is no FDA approved medical treatment to cure tinnitus. The biggest reason for this is that the cause of tinnitus in each individual is unclear and no two cases are the same. But, in most cases, tinnitus is worse in quiet environments.
Most researchers agree that people experiencing tinnitus are also likely to be suffering from hearing loss. The damage to inner ear hair cells that are responsible for our hearing can be damaged over time by noise exposure, medications and aging. This hair cell damage can lead to hearing loss accompanied by high pitched ringing, buzzing or even “cricket-like” sounds. The auditory cortex, or the “brain of hearing”, needs input from the hearing mechanism in order for you to hear and understand speech clearly. Research has shown that the auditory cortex is in a “search mode”, looking for sounds to process. If there is no sound, or very little sound, to process the auditory cortex may actually be trying to process the hair cell damage. This leads to an enhanced perception of the ringing or buzzing and causes more stress and anxiety to the individual suffering from tinnitus. If there is environmental sound present the auditory cortex has sound to process and the tinnitus may not be as heavy perceived.
An example demonstrating this is a birthday cake with lit candles. When the candles are in a lighted room they still can be seen, but as soon as the lights in the room go out the candles are more noticeable. The light from the candles is always present, whether or not the room is lighted or not. The candles simply appear brighter in a dark room. Likewise, tinnitus from damaged hair cells will always be present, even when the person with tinnitus is in a noisier environment. As soon as you are removed from the noisy environment and enter a quiet environment the tinnitus becomes much more noticeable.
If you are suffering from hearing loss along with tinnitus, you are not receiving sufficient auditory stimulation. This causes a lack of speech and environmental input to the auditory cortex. Now, not only are you unable to understand and communicate, but the tinnitus is more distracting. A simple way to treat this problem is with the use of hearing aids. With hearing aids, the auditory cortex is receiving more natural stimulation from environmental sounds and conversations. Even in a quiet room hearing aids will pick up sounds from the air conditioner, a clock ticking or music from a radio or television that otherwise may not be heard. The ability to hear more natural environmental sounds provides a “masking” effect for the tinnitus, allowing the hearing aid wearer to hear what they are supposed to hear. The auditory cortex now is able to process the environmental and speech sounds, not the tinnitus.
Hearing aid technology today is much more effective in masking annoying tinnitus than ever before! In addition to the outstanding sound quality, hearing aids can also provide tinnitus
therapy and there are programs that further reduce stress caused from tinnitus. For example, Widex Zen therapy provides musical tones that sound similar to wind chimes. This provides a pleasant acoustic stimulation that reduces stress-related tinnitus. Another instrument from Resound provides a tinnitus sound generator that can be adjusted around the perceived pitch and volume of the tinnitus. Fortunately, in most cases simply wearing hearing aids can alleviate the stress caused by tinnitus.
While hearing aids may not cure your tinnitus, they can help you avoid silence and your tinnitus symptoms!
Director of Audiology