Objective tinnitus is the perception of ringing, whooshing, buzzing or other sounds in your ears that no one else can hear. It is estimated that 10-15% of adults have chronic tinnitus1, but the overall impact it can have on your life can vary drastically. For some, the ringing is just a minor annoyance; and for others, it is a frustrating, life-interrupting problem.
In this blog, I’m going to talk about why tinnitus is so severe for some people, and go over some steps you can take to try sound therapy at home while you wait for an appointment with a hearing care professional.
Why is tinnitus so bothersome for some people?
Approximately 1-2% of tinnitus sufferers experience debilitating effects from the ringing.1 This means that the ringing in their ears makes it hard for them to function and impacts their ability to work, drive, or participate in everyday activities.
To explain why tinnitus bothers some folks, we have to take a look at the brain’s role in hearing. For someone with “normal” hearing, sounds like a refrigerator or fan are something they can tune into or hear on purpose, but for the most part, these noises fade into the background and are not bothersome. This is because the brain processes that sound as unimportant.
When you have tinnitus, your brain is hearing a ringing sound that it should be able to filter out in the same way it would the fan in this example, but for some reason, it can’t. And for someone with very bothersome tinnitus, the brain may even send them into a fight-or-flight response as a result of not being able to ignore this sound. Tinnitus is thought to be like a missing limb syndrome, where the brain is hearing and searching for sounds it used to have.
One of the best ways we have to treat tinnitus is with sound therapy. Sound therapy helps the brain to focus on other sounds and allows you to relax. When we give the brain back the sound it is searching for, the tinnitus will perceptually be reduced or less bothersome. Eventually, you may be able to get used to the ringing so it no longer causes panic. The goal of sound therapy is called Habituation. It is to help the brain understand that the ringing is there but that it does not have to cause unsettling feelings when it happens.
Sound therapy is something you can start with on your own, but be advised that if you are struggling with tinnitus, you should see a hearing care professional. About 90% of people with tinnitus have some degree of hearing loss2! And if you have hearing loss, you need to address it with hearing aids. Not only does hearing all the sounds of life offer you a better quality of life3, but studies show that in some people, untreated hearing loss may raise the risk of dementia and other potential health risks.3
Hearing aids have been shown to help with tinnitus because they are a form of sound therapy. By giving the brain more sound to hear from the world, hearing aids provide a distraction from the ringing and make it less bothersome. It helps the brain stop searching so much for the sound it is missing.
Many hearing aids also come with tinnitus masking programs, which provide sound therapy through your hearing aids any time you need it via an app on your phone. Typically, these maskers are nature sounds like ocean waves or white noise. They can be activated any time you need them or when you start to feel overwhelmed by your tinnitus.
Sound therapy – Steps you can take at home
As I said, sound therapy is basically giving your brain other things to listen to so it can learn to ignore the ringing in your ears. You may already be using sound therapy without realizing it if you play music to distract yourself!
I have heard it explained that tinnitus sounds are like a violin playing in an empty concert hall – it is the only sound you hear. The goal of sound therapy is to make that violin less noticeable by bringing in the rest of the orchestra. You may still hear the violin (tinnitus), but it won’t be the only thing you hear, and it won’t stand out to you.
To get started, choose a sound that is relaxing for you. Studies show that nature sounds or calming music are the most helpful. You may also find audio books or a white noise generator is best for you. I suggest having a white noise app on your phone, and be sure you have earbuds or headphones with you so you can use these sounds on the go and always at a comfortable level. You don’t want to cause more hearing loss, because that could cause more severe tinnitus. The bottom line is to never be in total quiet. A background fan noise or tabletop fountain will add enriching sounds to a stark, bare sound environment and help to keep your brain busy.
Next, when you notice your tinnitus becoming problematic, start playing that relaxing sound in your headphones. Be sure to keep the volume at a comfortable level and take a break after an hour. When you start to find the ringing less noticeable, you can turn the sound or music down a bit and see how that works. The goal is to use as little extra sound as possible and slightly confuse the brain with sound to keep it distracted and sufficiently stimulated.
More tinnitus relief tips
While sound therapy is typically my first choice in addressing tinnitus, there are a variety of other methods that may help manage tinnitus symptoms for some people:2
- Protect your hearing – wear earplugs when you are exposed to loud sounds, such as concerts, when using power tools, or mowing the lawn. Exposure to loud sounds can make tinnitus symptoms worse.
- Relaxation and mindfulness techniques – Yoga and meditation have been shown to help provide relief from tinnitus symptoms.
- Good sleep – good sleep practices can help keep tinnitus symptoms at bay. Try to maintain a regular bedtime routine and avoid alcohol, caffeine and exercise before sleeping.
- “In a 2007 survey of hearing health professionals, respondents self-reported that roughly 60% of their tinnitus patients experienced at least some relief when wearing hearing aids; roughly 22% of patients found significant relief.”4
- Tinnitus management Handbook for Clinicians – Oticon
- Learning About Tinnitus Guide – Oticon
Lin FR, Metter EJ, O’Brien RJ, Resnick SM, Zonderman AB, Ferrucci L. Hearing loss and incident dementia. Arch Neurol 2011; 68: 214–20. 67.
- Hearing Aids / Masking Devices | American Tinnitus Association (ata.org)