Tinnitus (TIN-it-us) is ringing, buzzing, roaring, or other sound in the ear. For some it comes and goes, and for many it is permanent in one or both ears. Millions of Americans suffer from tinnitus, and far too many have been told that there is nothing to do but live with it. While this may have once been true, research has come a long way in recent years and new treatment methods are very effective.
In the vast majority of cases, tinnitus is caused by damage to the auditory system, and most people who experience tinnitus have measurable and treatable hearing loss. Aside from hearing loss, tinnitus can be caused by medications, disease or infection, head trauma, diet, or stress. Ironically, stress can be both a cause and a result of tinnitus, leading to a difficult cycle where stress causes tinnitus which causes more stress which causes more tinnitus, and on and on and on. Many people with tinnitus are surprised to learn that while tinnitus is common, only about 20% of people who experience tinnitus are bothered by it. This should be a source of tremendous hope, because while we cannot fix the underlying damage that causes tinnitus, we are becoming very good at moving people who suffer from tinnitus into the category of people who experience but are not bothered by their tinnitus. There are two basic approaches to managing tinnitus in this manner, and they are known as the masking approach and the acclimatization approach.
One of the most effective ways of reducing the anxiety associated with tinnitus is giving the sufferer control over when they hear it. For many people, being able to choose when to hear tinnitus and when to hear something else is enough to break the stress cycle and allow them to return to a normal life. Tinnitus maskers come in a variety of sounds, sizes, and styles, and there are many hearing aid manufacturers that are now building tinnitus maskers directly into their devices, so that we can treat the underlying hearing loss and at the same time give a masker through a remote control or program button that will give the tinnitus sufferer control over where and when to hear their tinnitus, all day long.
Tinnitus retraining therapy began to be researched in 1998 at Yale University. While the theory behind it is complex, the basic idea is that we can train the brain not to notice tinnitus. For the past fifteen years the approach has been evolving slowly, and two recently released products now incorporate TRT-based programs directly into hearing aids that can be worn all day long, eliminating the need for portable iPod-like devices that need to be listened to for several hours a day.