Tinnitus can be frustrating for many reasons. First and foremost, the condition of tinnitus is entirely subjective. You can’t show anyone firsthand what the ringing sounds like, how loud that ringing is, or how bothersome the tinnitus may be to you.
Secondly, because the condition is so subjective, there’s no objective way to measure tinnitus. Unfortunately you can’t simply go into the doctor’s office, get some blood drawn, and get diagnosed with it.
Last, the medical world still doesn’t have an exact, firm, grasp of how tinnitus works. Unfortunately, our understanding of the causes and treatment options remain less than perfected.
When dealt with on a daily basis for those affected, this can all add up to be extremely frustrating. Those affected should not remain hopeless, however. Despite the many frustrations, a significant amount of those affected do end up showing significant improvements in their symptoms when paired with the correct treatment.
Throughout this article, we will be discussing one particular treatment option, known as Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT). TRT has proven to be particularly effective, but to really understand how it works, you first have to understand the two main parts to tinnitus as a whole.
The Two Parts of Tinnitus
Tinnitus can be defined as, “The perception of sound when no external sound source is present.” We can break the condition down into two parts:
- The actual sound: This is almost always perceived as a ringing sound, but can also be perceived by an individual as a buzzing, hissing, whistling, swooshing, or clicking sound.
- The emotional reaction: This is the perception of the loudness and character of the sound and its disruption to everyday life.
A complete, effective treatment of tinnitus therefore requires addressing both parts, which is the underlying rationale of Tinnitus Retraining Therapy.
Tinnitus Retraining Therapy
Sound therapy is the use of external sound to “mask” the internal sound of tinnitus. One of the more promising treatments currently known today, this mitigates tinnitus on a number of levels.
First and foremost, the external sound can partially or completely cover the tinnitus sounds. By doing so, it can also divert the patient’s attention while the sound is being played. This can provide immediate relief and subdue many of the effects of tinnitus rather quickly.
Second, sound therapy can result in a desired effect called “habituation.” This is where the brain is trained over time to reclassify the tinnitus as an unimportant sound that should be ignored.
Third, the use of specialized sound minimizes the hyperactivity in the brain thought to be the underlying mechanism of tinnitus. This is called “neuromodulation.”
Sound therapy is desirable not only due to the short-term and long-term benefits it possess, but also because it works on multiple levels to mitigate the severity of symptoms. Sound therapy can be delivered through special sound masking devices, headphones, and even hearing aids.
While any “sound” can provide a masking effect, specialized medical-grade devices deliver customized sounds or music programmed to match the characteristics of the patient’s tinnitus. Your hearing care professional can help you select the right device and sound.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
In addition to sound therapy, TRT also employs behavioral therapies that address the second, emotional component of tinnitus. In ways, this is the more critical component, as tinnitus can trigger strong emotional reactions like anxiety, depression, and anger.
Research in this area has led to some surprising conclusions. For example, studies have found no correlation between the loudness/pitch of tinnitus and patient-reported distress. Whether or not tinnitus is viewed as no-big-deal, slightly bothersome, or devastating is largely dependent on the cognitive/behavioral response of the patient.
That’s good news because it means that you can learn various techniques to reduce the anxiety caused by tinnitus (which itself can make the tinnitus worse). And that’s why behavioral therapy has been so effective—in fact, a 2010 meta-analysis of eight research studies showed significant improvement in depression and quality of life for patients that participated in the programs.
Behavioral therapy can be delivered one-on-one or in groups, from a clinic or over the phone or internet from the patient’s home. Therapy includes education, identifying tinnitus triggers, instituting healthy lifestyle choices to mitigate symptoms, and mindfulness-based stress reduction.
Take Action and Silence Your Tinnitus
Tinnitus Retraining Therapy is effective because it leads to habituation on both fronts, both in terms of the actual sound and in terms of the emotional and behavioral responses.
While there is no known cure for tinnitus, you can mitigate the symptoms with the right plan and some perseverance. As your tinnitus is masked and the brain is trained to ignore it, you’ll be able to better cope with the sounds and improve your quality of life.