Tinnitus–unnatural ringing, buzzing, hissing, humming and other unwanted sounds in your ear–can literally drive you crazy if you let it. Researchers have studied the phenomenon for years, and while there are range of theories about its causes, a good layman’s explanation is that when your hearing and auditory nerves suffer damage or degradation, the brain tries to make up for the lack of usual sounds by creating its own. Unfortunately there is no known conclusive cure. But as The Wall Street Journal recently reported, numerous therapies have been developed in recent years that can help you live with even a severe case of tinnitus.
My tinnitus crept up on me gradually, starting in my twenties, but when I suffered severe sudden hearing loss a few years ago, it came on like gangbusters. When I’m by myself in a quiet room, there’s a cacophony of noises in my head, including the weird phenomenon of phantom music. The good news is that when I’m wearing my hearing aids while I’m out and about interacting with people in the world, I barely notice my tinnitus. The real-world sounds seem to both mask the bothersome noises in my head and, just as important, distract my attention from them.
These two effects — masking and distraction — are the first steps in many of the most effective therapies. Tinnitus sound-masking devices simply create soothing music or white noise that blends with or overrides the tinnitus sounds. They can come in hearing-aid-like devices, ear-buds with hand-held units similar to MP3 players. They can also come in hearing aids themselves: Widex has incorporated its Zen sound-generating program into its flagship mind330 and mind220 series of hearing aids. The Zen program uses soothing music to fill in quiet periods and distract hearing-aid users from their tinnitus.
The concept of tinnitus masking therapies came into question with a recent academic study at the Centre for Hearing and Balance Studies, Bristol University, in the UK, which presented data that “failed to show strong evidence of the efficacy of sound therapy in tinnitus management.” The study got some newsmedia headlines that unfortunately failed to mention the strong qualification in the study, which went on to say:
The absence of conclusive evidence should not be interpreted as evidence of lack of effectiveness. The lack of quality research in this area, in addition to the common use of combined approaches (hearing therapy plus counseling) in the management of tinnitus are, in part, responsible for the lack of conclusive evidence….Optimal management may involve multiple strategies.
Tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT) is a relatively new multi-step approach that utilizes sound-generating therapy along with counseling and patient exercises in an attempt to rewire the brain to stop creating the unwanted sounds. And perhaps the best-known commercial enterprise providing tinnitus therapy is Neuromonics, which combines strategic use of its Neuromonics Oasis sound generator through a structured six-month process to address the “underlying neurological causes of tinnitus.” Neuromonics claims a 90 percent success rate in alleviating tinnitus symptoms for patients who go through the entire program.
However, because tinnitus is a condition that is different for every person who suffers it, the exact regimen of therapies that will help you live with it can range from something as simple as a good pair of hearing aids, which seem to work well enough for me, to more exhaustive regimens.