Tinnitus can be discouraging for a large amount of reasons. First, it’s extremely subjective and varies on a case by case basis. You can’t show anyone what the ringing sounds like, you can’t show anyone how loud it is, and you can’t show anyone how bothersome it is.
Second, there’s no one true, objective way to measure tinnitus. You simply aren’t able to, for example, go into the doctor’s office, get blood drawn, and get diagnosed with the condition.
Third, we still don’t have a complete understanding of how exactly tinnitus works. As such, our understanding of the causes and treatment options remain less than perfect.
This is all frustrating, of course to anyone dealing with tinnitus. Anybody affected should not be hopeless, however. In fact, despite the many frustrations, people with tinnitus can demonstrate a great amount of improvement with their symptoms when following the right treatment plan.
Throughout this article, we’ll be discussing one treatment option in particular, known as Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT), that has proven to be particularly effective. To understand how TRT works, you first have to understand the two parts of the tinnitus condition.
The Two Parts to Tinnitus
Tinnitus is the perception of sound when no external sound source is present. We can break tinnitus down into two parts:
- The actual sound – usually noted as a ringing sound, this can also be perceived as a buzzing sound, hissing sound, whistling sound, swooshing sound, or clicking sound.
- The emotional reaction – the perception of the loudness and character of the sound and the disruption it causes to everyday life.
The most effective remedy of tinnitus therefore requires addressing both parts, which is the underlying rationale of Tinnitus Retraining Therapy.
Tinnitus Retraining Therapy
Following what we outlined above, lets break TRT down into two parts. The first part will be addressing the actual sound tinnitus produces, and the second part will be dealing with the emotional and behavioral repercussions tinnitus brings to those affected.
Sound therapy employs the use of an external sound to “mask” the internal sound of tinnitus. In turn, the tinnitus is managed on a number of levels.
First, the new external sound can partially or completely cover the sound tinnitus produces. An added benefit; it can also divert the patient’s attention while the sound is being played. This can provide an immediate sense of relief.
Second, sound therapy can result in what is called “habituation,” where the brain is trained over time to reclassify the tinnitus as an unimportant sound that should be ignored. Habituation is essentially the end goal.
Third, the use of specialized sound minimizes hyperactivity in the brain thought to be the underlying mechanism of tinnitus. This is called “neuromodulation.”
Sound therapy can provide both short-term and long-term benefits, and can assist across 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 custom sounds programmed to match the characteristics of each individual 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.
Studies have found no correlation between the loudness/pitch of tinnitus and patient-reported distress. Whether or not tinnitus is viewed as slightly bothersome, or sometimes 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). 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 either one-on-one or in groups, from a clinic or over the phone or internet from the patient’s home. This 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.