Do you find yourself distracted by a ringing sound in your ear? Also called tinnitus, this ear noise can range from bothersome to anxiety-provoking.
The good news for anyone with tinnitus is that you can do things to make it less distracting. In this guide, we'll explore what tinnitus is and what you can do to get relief.
What is tinnitus?
Do you hear a sound that isn't coming from anywhere in the room you're in? Sometimes described as a ringing sound, tinnitus is any ear noise that isn't produced by an external sound source.
The sound can resemble buzzing, humming, chirping, swooshing, clicking, ringing, electrical powerline noise, or even music. Tinnitus can be intermittent or constant, and it can vary in loudness.
How common is tinnitus?
The American Tinnitus Association estimates that more than 25 million Americans suffer from tinnitus. There are likely many more sufferers than this number suggests, as not everyone seeks treatment for their tinnitus.
Do I need to see a doctor?
While tinnitus can be bothersome or annoying, hearing this ear noise is not necessarily a reason for concern in most cases. However, there are times when a doctor should evaluate to rule out other medical concerns. For example, if your tinnitus is also accompanied by dizziness, a sudden change in hearing, or a pulsing sound that follows your heartbeat. Additionally, if your tinnitus negatively affects your mood or quality of life, it's time to consider additional support.
What causes tinnitus?
On its own, tinnitus is a symptom and not an illness. There are many potential causes of tinnitus, including hearing loss, exposure to loud noise, earwax buildup, changes in blood flow or pressure in the ears, sinus infections, head or neck injuries, and certain medications. For most tinnitus sufferers (80 - 90%), tinnitus is related to some degree of hearing loss.
While our understanding of tinnitus is still evolving, some working theories can help us understand it. Let's look at one.
The auditory system picks up sound and sends it up to the brain.
However, when we have hearing loss, the brain receives less sound information than it did before.
To compensate, the brain changes the system, causing an increase in nerve-firing activity. The result? This new increase in neural activity causes a perception of sound even in silence.
Note: these pictures are courtesy of Dr. Tyler's tinnitus resources through UIHC.
Now that we understand the mechanism behind tinnitus let's look at ways to make it less bothersome.
Treatment #1: Masking
In today's world, masking usually means putting a mask on your face. 😷
We're not talking about this kind of masking. Tinnitus masking is all about blending unwanted noise into the background.
Think of it this way. You've probably noticed that your tinnitus is most noticeable in a quiet room.
Imagine lighting a candle in a dark room versus lighting a candle in a well-lit room.
The same idea is true when playing some background noise to mask the sound of tinnitus. Some find nature sounds particularly soothing, such as waterfalls, ocean sounds, or soft music.
Other people prefer different colors of noise (white, pink, or brown noise) or other sounds.
A useful, free app: GN Resound Relief provides various masking sounds for you to try and is easily accessible on a Smartphone.
Treatment #2: Hearing Aids
As we mentioned, the majority of people with tinnitus also have some degree of hearing loss. The mechanism behind tinnitus causes the brain to generate its own ear noise. However, hearing aids can help to improve tinnitus perception in two ways:
1) Treating hearing loss - the brain generates tinnitus in part because it is missing its former ability to hear certain pitches. Receiving these sounds again can help to reduce the brain's own generated noise over time.
2) Providing masking sounds - if you have hearing loss, there are probably a lot of sounds happening around you that you may not notice. Hearing aids pick up these sounds, which helps you hear better and also covers the tinnitus sounds.
Note: It's important to note that wearing hearing aids is often beneficial for tinnitus sufferers, but it may not completely stop the tinnitus.
Treatment #3: Manage Stress
Have you noticed that tinnitus seems louder than usual when you're feeling stressed? Sometimes it's easier said than done in our stressful world, but keeping your stress levels in check goes a long way to reducing tinnitus perception. Simple changes can make a big difference. Here is a short list of things you can do:
- Carve out some time every day to do something you enjoy.
- Plan healthy meals and drink plenty of water. Good nutrition and hydration will help you to handle stress and feel your best.
- Leave work at work. Once you leave the office, avoid checking work emails or spending mental energy on work projects.
- Use your lunch break. Move away from your desk and take time to eat your lunch without interruptions.
Treatment #4: Get Quality Sleep
This is a big one. If you're not sleeping well, there are a whole host of negative health effects. Unfortunately, your tinnitus can be much louder as well.
There are a few things you can do to help improve your sleep:
- Follow a routine - go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
- Avoid caffeine late in the day.
- Avoid electronics shortly before bed and keep the room dark to help prepare for sleep.
- Establish a relaxing bedtime routine, such as reading or journaling.
Treatment #5: Meditation or Mindful Movement
Research shows that meditation has many positive health benefits. Directing your thoughts elsewhere, meditation can help to take your mind off of the tinnitus perception and leave you feeling much more relaxed.
Meditation doesn't have to be anything complicated or lengthy. If you've not tried it before, you could even start by listening to a 5 to 10-minute guided meditation.
Another option is doing some physical activity, such as taking a walk, running, or joining a yoga class.
Pick an activity you enjoy and focus on being present in the moment. Physical activity is an excellent choice because it gives you something else to focus on, increases blood flow, releases positive endorphins, and boosts mood.
What To Do If You Need More Support
These tips can help provide tinnitus relief when your tinnitus is getting on your nerves. But what if you need more relief than these suggestions can provide? If your tinnitus is interfering with sleep and concentration or your mental health is suffering, it's time to consider more support.
Tinnitus Retraining Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are other treatment options that can be very effective for tinnitus. Both of these approaches take time to work, but they can help when tinnitus interferes with your quality of life.
CBT is a type of therapy that helps you understand and change the thoughts and emotions contributing to your tinnitus distress. It's usually delivered in sessions with a therapist, but self-help CBT options are also available.
Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT) is another treatment approach that can be very successful for tinnitus. This is a type of treatment program is done with an audiologist and helps to change reactions and perceptions of the tinnitus.
Tinnitus is a common condition that can significantly impact your quality of life.
These tips are just a starting point, but if tinnitus perception affects your daily life, it's important to seek professional help.
Many effective treatments are available, and working with an audiologist or other professional can make all the difference.