Tinnitus can be an unbelievably frustrating condition to deal with for a wide variety of reasons. First and foremost, it’s an extremely subjective experience. What we mean by that is you can’t really show anybody what the unending ringing of tinnitus sounds like. You can’t demonstrate how loud the constant barrage of noise is, or how much of a bother tinnitus can be.
Second, there still isn’t an objective way to measure the intensity of one’s tinnitus. You can’t, for example, drive to your doctor’s office, have some tests done, and get diagnosed with the condition.
The medical community still doesn’t have an exact understanding of how tinnitus works. As a direct result, our understanding of the potential causes and possible treatments remains less than ideal.
This can be extremely frustrating, of course, but those affected should not feel hopeless. Despite the many reasons for frustration, many people go on to show significant improvements in their tinnitus symptoms when paired with the right treatment plan.
Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT), for example, has proven to be particularly effective and is quickly becoming a popular tinnitus treatment. However, to truly understand how Tinnitus Retraining Therapy works, we will first have to go over the two parts of tinnitus. Read more about it below.
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.
Sound therapy is the use of external sound to “mask” the internal sound of tinnitus. This mitigates tinnitus on a number of levels.
First, the external sound can partially or completely cover the tinnitus sounds and can also divert the patient’s attention while the sound is being played. This can provide immediate relief.
Second, sound therapy encourages “habituation,” where the brain learns over time to reclassify tinnitus as an unimportant sound.
Third, specialized sounds minimizes the hyperactivity in the brain, thought to be the underlying mechanism of tinnitus. This is “neuromodulation.”
Sound therapy, therefore, has both short-term and long-term benefits and 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 theoretically provide the 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.
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.
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 is one-on-one or in groups, in a clinic or over the phone, or from the patient’s home using telehealth. 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 you mask your tinnitus and the brain learns to ignore it, you’ll be able to better cope with the sounds and improve your quality of life.