Tinnitus can be frustrating for a number of reasons. First, it’s entirely subjective, so you can’t show anyone what the ringing sounds like, how loud it is, or how bothersome it is.
Second, there’s no objective way to measure tinnitus, so you can’t, for example, go into the doctor’s office, get some blood drawn, and get diagnosed.
And third, we still don’t understand exactly how tinnitus works, so our understanding of the causes and treatment options remain less than perfect.
This is all frustrating, of course, but not hopeless. In fact, despite the frustrations, many people do show significant improvements in their symptoms with the right treatment plan.
In 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 it works, you first have to understand the two parts of tinnitus.
The Two Parts of 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 perceived as a ringing sound, but can also be perceived as a buzzing, hissing, whistling, swooshing, or clicking sound.
- The emotional reaction – the perception of the loudness and character of the sound and its disruption to everyday life.
The effective treatment of tinnitus therefore requires addressing both parts, which is the underlying rationale of Tinnitus Retraining Therapy.
Tinnitus Retraining Therapy
Let’s break TRT down into two parts, the first part addressing the actual sound tinnitus produces and the other part dealing with the emotional and behavioral repercussions.
Sound therapy makes use of external sound to cover up the internal sound of tinnitus you may be constantly facing. By doing so, it can help to mitigate tinnitus in a wide variety of ways.
First and foremost, the new external sound can either partially or completely cover up the sound tinnitus makes. By doing so, it can also divert the patient’s attention away from the underlying tinnitus while the sound is being played. This can provide immediate relief for the patient.
Second, sound therapy can eventually result in what is called “habituation.” This takes place when the brain is trained over time to recategorize the tinnitus as an “unimportant” sound that should be ignored by the brain. It essentially blocks it out of your consciousness.
The use of specialized sound minimizes the hyperactivity in the brain thought to be a contributing factor to tinnitus. This is called “neuromodulation.”
Therefore, the medical world believes TRT to have both short-term and long-term benefits, which work together across multiple levels to help ease the severity of symptoms. Sound therapy can be delivered through special sound masking devices, headphones, and even hearing aids to the patient.
While it is true that any noise can theoretically provide somewhat of a masking effect, specialized medical-grade devices deliver customized sounds or music programmed to match the characteristics of each individual patient’s form of 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.
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 not yet any known cure for the condition, you can help to manage your symptoms of tinnitus with the right plan and some perseverance. As your tinnitus is masked and the brain is trained to ignore it (habituation), you’ll be able to better cope with the sounds and improve your quality of life.