Many of us have experienced an unwelcome ringing in our ears. While that noise can be temporarily unpleasant, for most people it usually passes. But, according to the Mayo Clinic, for 15-20% of people the condition called tinnitus is a constant and persistent problem. Now, a new treatment for tinnitus may finally bring some relief.
What Is Tinnitus?
The Mayo Clinic defines tinnitus as, “When you experience ringing or other noises in one or both of your ears. The noise you hear when you have tinnitus isn’t caused by an external sound, and other people usually can’t hear it.”
Tinnitus can be a persistent problem or it can come and go. For many people, the sound can be so loud that it interferes with their ability to concentrate or hear external sounds. Ultimately, it’s caused by hearing loss that may be caused by a host of other conditions, like circulatory issues, an ear infection, or even aging. While there is no scientifically proven “cure” for tinnitus, research has found new treatments that greatly help people deal with their symptoms.
How Do You Know If You Have Tinnitus?
The diagnosis for tinnitus is not always an easy one. Jennifer Gans, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist specializing in the psychological impact of deafness and hearing on well-being. She’s been working in the field of deafness for 20 years and has helped countless patients deal with tinnitus over the past 10 years. Gans recommends seeing an audiologist or locating a clinic that specializes in treating tinnitus in your area.
“Accurate information is key, but accessing accurate information of those very first days can be challenging,” Gans tells Parentology. She explains that tinnitus starts with hearing loss, but becomes a little more complex after that. “Tinnitus is more like a recipe; it’s never one thing. It’s not just hearing loss. It’s not just stress. It’s just not a specific type of personality.”
The combination of these factors can create what Gans calls “bothersome tinnitus,” meaning that the condition is disrupting the patient’s daily life and activities.
“Anybody can get tinnitus, but 16-17 million Americans are bothered enough by it to go to their doctor. The other 20 million are walking the streets of the U.S. with tinnitus, but they’re not bothered by it because it is a benign body sensation. The problem with the person with bothersome tinnitus is their brain is misperceiving a benign body situation; so it thinks it’s something to pay attention to, when, in fact, it can go into the background.”
Is There Treatment for Tinnitus?
“What makes a person focus on tinnitus is fear,” Gans explains. “Fear or anxiety has to be a part of the picture.”
Gans likens the brain to an orchestra, working with many different sections contributing. In treating tinnitus, she helps patients “re-tune” their brains so they can start perceiving body sensations accurately. Gans does not claim to cure or get rid of tinnitus; rather, she helps patients shift their tinnitus from bothersome to non-bothersome.
It’s not just about stress reduction. Gans sites three important components to help patients.
- Working to help patients feel less anxious about tinnitus
- Educating patients so they can be an expert on what tinnitus is and also what it isn’t
- Taking a patient’s lifestyle into consideration.
Gans is confident that she can take it from bothersome to non-bothersome by re-training the brain on how to deal with it, whether through an online course or in-person treatments. Education about the condition alleviates patients’ fears and empowers them to manage their tinnitus. She also recommends meditation or focused awareness practice that enables patients to create space between what’s happening to them physically and how they react to it.
This allows patients to shift from being reactive to tinnitus. Through treatment, patients learn how to respond to tinnitus and begin to view tinnitus in a more appropriate way. “Tinnitus is a paper tiger,” she says. “It looks scary, but it’s actually made of paper.”
Gans says that she’s never been so busy. People are contacting her and taking her course in record numbers. She believes that the additional stress and anxiety that people have felt over the past year is most likely the cause behind the increase in bothersome tinnitus.
Many people may have had tinnitus that fell in the non-bothersome category, but additional stress, anxiety, and lifestyle changes have most likely exacerbated their condition. The good news is that Dr. Gans is confident that she, and other professionals like her, can manage the different components of tinnitus and absolutely help anyone that is suffering.