Over 50 million individuals in the United States have encountered tinnitus, a condition in which you hear sounds without an external origin. Among those tinnitus sufferers, one out of every five people experience distress and a detrimental effect on their overall quality of life.
We know our brains have an amazing capacity to change and adapt both mentally and physically. How does tinnitus affect your brain health and function?
What is tinnitus?
Tinnitus is a condition in which you hear sounds that aren’t there. Typically, what you hear is a buzzing or ringing, but tinnitus-caused sounds could also take the form of clicking or whooshing–there are plenty of varieties.
Primarily, tinnitus is linked to hearing issues and is commonly encountered by individuals with hearing loss. However, this correlation is not exclusive.
Various underlying factors, such as Meniere’s Disease, ear infections, traumatic brain injuries, and ear trauma, can also contribute to the development of tinnitus.
The development tinnitus can have long-term effects on your brain and, therefore, on your mental health. Gaining insights into how tinnitus influences your brain can contribute to enhancing the overall health of both your ears and your mind.
How does tinnitus impact the brain?
At first glance, then, you might assume that tinnitus is strictly an ear issue. It’s true that the ear is often where the root problem will be located. But the work of interpreting sounds is done by your brain.
It’s not all that surprising that research suggests that tinnitus seems to have a direct impact on your brain.
The impact of tinnitus on the brain is still being studied, and there is still a lot to discover. We do know the brain is impacted by tinnitus, as it is naturally wired to be attentive to sounds.
When tinnitus flares up, your brain goes into a heightened state, looking for the source of that sound. Your brain wants to know whether that source is a danger or not (and it’s going to be cautious until it can make a determination).
Mental fatigue and tinnitus
In short bursts, this heightened status can be quite good for you. If you heard noises in the woods, you’d be on alert. Is it a squirrel or a bear? Until you see that squirrel, you’ll probably assume bear, right? Better to be vigilant than surprised, your brain assumes.
That’s basically what your brain is doing constantly while your tinnitus symptoms are present. In cases of chronic tinnitus, this can lead to severe mental fatigue. Your brain is trying to pinpoint this sound nearly every second of every day, and because that’s happening, your mind isn’t able to slip into a quiet (and restful) state.
As time goes on, this mental fatigue can cause other issues and even rewire the way certain parts of your brain network.
How to help your brain relax with tinnitus
If your brain is stuck in a kind of heightened state because of your tinnitus, there are two paths you may choose to follow:
- Try to force your brain to relax no matter what it’s hearing.
- Treat the underlying issue behind tinnitus.
While the underlying causes of tinnitus are generally not well understood, in some cases, tinnitus can be managed. If your tinnitus is caused by, for example, sensorineural hearing loss, hearing aids can help. Other treatments tend to focus on ways to train your brain to block out or ignore the buzzing or ringing (or whatever else) you might be hearing.
Relaxation techniques might prove useful in the long run as well. Many people find success with yoga and meditation. Your hearing specialist may also be able to recommend certain therapies or behaviors that can help you tune out tinnitus-related sounds and get your brain to calm down.
The link between hearing and cognition
The interconnection between tinnitus and your awareness is just one aspect of the inherent link between your hearing and cognitive functions. Despite some ambiguity in cause-and-effect relationships, the established correlation between hearing and cognition is widely acknowledged.
Addressing conditions like hearing loss or tinnitus serves as a means to protect not only your auditory capacity but also your mental well-being. While having an alert brain is beneficial, avoiding mental exhaustion is likely a priority you’d prefer.
Find a hearing specialist near you for a personalized plan to manage your tinnitus.