Tinnitus, which you can pronounce either TINN-it-us or tinn-EYE-tus – either one is fine! – is the perception of sound that can neither be heard by anyone else nor measured. It most often comes in the form of a high-pitched “ringing in the ears,” but other people experience it as crickets, a static noise, a low-pitched whooshing sound, or even phantom music. Approximately one in ten people in the U.S. experiences tinnitus. As you get older, it becomes more common, and it is also more common in people who have been exposed to loud noise on a regular basis. It can be a side effect of a number of medications and medical disorders, but most commonly it is a side effect of hearing loss.
Will a hearing aid reduce tinnitus?
Let’s back up a little here and talk about hearing loss and the brain. Your brain is programmed to expect a certain amount of sound, and it’s up to your ears to deliver that sound. Well, when your ears aren’t doing their job because of hearing loss, your brain isn’t receiving the sound that it expects! It’s thought that when the brain begins to seek this missing input, some of the neurons in the auditory cortex – the part of the brain responsible for processing sound – essentially go haywire, firing at random and that this misfiring is responsible for tinnitus. That’s right, that “ringing in your ears” is actually in your brain! If you’re familiar with the concept of phantom limb pain, where people who have had a hand or foot amputated continue to feel pain in body parts that are no longer there, it’s a similar phenomenon. The brain is expecting input from the sensory cells on the fingers and toes, and when it detects that missing input, it begins to misfire. Unlike with a missing limb, however, we have the ability to restore a lot of that missing input when we’re dealing with the auditory system!
HOW CAN HEARING AIDS HELP?
A properly fit set of hearing aids is programmed to boost the sounds that you’re missing and restore normal auditory input to your brain. When the brain no longer detects that it isn’t receiving the sound it’s supposed to receive, it often stops misfiring, meaning you no longer perceive tinnitus. However, hearing aids don’t actually restore normal hearing; they help, but they don’t actually cure your hearing loss, so in many cases, your perception of tinnitus will be reduced but not entirely removed, and for most people with tinnitus, that perception comes back when you take the hearing aids off at night. But if you suffer from tinnitus, even a reduction in your symptoms can be a great relief!
For an additional subset of people with tinnitus, hearing aids alone aren’t enough to alleviate tinnitus symptoms. These people may require an additional form of tinnitus treatment in the form of sound therapy. Sound therapy encompasses a number of options, but the simplest form is the
built-in tinnitus masker that most hearing aids include. This is a feature that can be enabled by your hearing care professional during an appointment, which allows the hearing aid to produce any number of soft background sounds such as white noise or ocean waves. Many hearing aids also offer the option to tune that “white noise” so it more closely matches the frequency of your tinnitus, to alter the pattern of the waves or other features which vary by manufacturer. If you find that turning on a fan reduces your tinnitus, you may respond well to this feature.
Hearing aids these days are almost all Bluetooth-enabled, meaning you can stream sound from your phone to your hearing aids. This feature can be used for tinnitus relief, too; there are apps on the market that are specifically designed to provide sound therapy for tinnitus, and you can stream the sounds from these apps straight to your hearing aids for as many hours as you need. You can also just stream soft background music, or a sleep sounds app, or whatever works best for you!
Why do these sounds help with tinnitus? Again, we’re not talking about curing your tinnitus, but rather alleviating symptoms by reducing your perception of tinnitus. If you have something else to listen to, you may simply be distracted from your tinnitus. Or, because tinnitus is a very soft sound for most people, the sounds can easily cover up the tinnitus sound; this is called masking, meaning the white noise or ocean waves are masking the sound of your tinnitus.
One final way that hearing aids can help reduce tinnitus is simple: tinnitus is often increased when you’re stressed out, and wearing hearing aids can reduce stress. If you’re straining to understand what people are saying or to fill in words that you missed, conversation becomes a lot more difficult than it ought to be. Working that hard just to hear is stressful! If your hearing aids are properly programmed, hearing and listening won’t be so stressful, and this alone can alleviate tinnitus if it’s caused by stress.
If you’d like to discuss hearing aids for tinnitus, Earlux would love to help! Give us a call at 833-4-EARLUX!