Back in January of this year, I was sitting on the couch with my family, watching a movie. Suddenly, my ears popped, and I heard a loud ringing, like the ear ringing you might experience after leaving a loud rock show.
I wasn’t alarmed by this. Random ear rings like this had hit me before. They usually went away entirely in a few seconds.
The loudness of the ear ring faded away, but instead of silence, there was a faint, tinny buzzing sound between my ears that stuck around. I could even kind of feel the buzz of the sound inside my head.
A few hours later, the buzzing sound was still there. Instead of drifting off to sleep in silence, I could only think about the electrical hum inside my head as I lay in bed. I didn’t sleep very well that night.
When I woke up in the morning, the buzz was still there. With a sinking feeling, I recognized what it meant: I had tinnitus.
I also knew that tinnitus isn’t curable. Once you get it, you have it for life. No surgery or pill can make it go away.
I made an appointment with an audiologist here in town just to confirm my self-diagnosis. At the end of the consultation, she told me, “Well, you have tinnitus. It’s not dangerous. There’s not much you can do about it except learn to live with it.”
Over the next few days, the electric buzzing sound in my head kept on buzzing. During the day, it wasn’t much of a problem. Being busy with work and life distracted me from it. However, when I was working in silence like I often do while writing, the buzzing noise would be a nuisance. I started working with classical music playing.
The buzzing became a real problem at night when I was trying to sleep. There was no escaping it as I lay quietly in my bed. It drove me absolutely bonkers. My sleep really took a hit there for a while.
I started spending hours every day online researching what to do about my tinnitus. In addition to webpages of medical advice, there are also a lot of forums out there where people lament the way tinnitus has ruined their lives and the seeming hopelessness of the situation. Reading these threads would just depress me. “Well,” I told Kate after gorging on some of these forum postings, “I’m doomed to being distracted while working and never sleeping well again for the rest of my life.”
Then, one day, I came across a YouTube channel run by audiologist Ben Thompson that’s all about helping people manage their tinnitus. Ben’s videos were straightforward but, more importantly, hopeful. While he acknowledges that there’s no cure for tinnitus, he hits home the fact that it is treatable. You can do things to reduce the perception of tinnitus in your head.
I started using some of Ben’s tips. After a month or so, I started noticing my tinnitus less and less. It’s still there; my brain has just learned to ignore it. I rarely notice it during the day and can work in silence again, and it doesn’t bother me anymore when I’m trying to sleep at night.
I’ll have the occasional flare-up where the tinnitus becomes really noticeable for a day or two, but then it quiets back down.
I know I’m not the only guy out there who’s struggling with tinnitus. Men who work in loud environments like factories and construction sites are prone to developing tinnitus. Tinnitus is the number one service-oriented disability amongst U.S. military veterans, a large percentage of whom are men.
I hopped on the horn with Dr. Ben Thompson to discuss tinnitus and what to do about it. His approach helped me with my tinnitus. Maybe it will help yours, too.
What Exactly Is Tinnitus and What Causes It?
“Tinnitus is a phantom sound that only the individual experiencing it can hear,” Ben told me. “It is the perception of an internal noise, such as ringing, buzzing, or electrical noise, that seems to originate from within the ear or the auditory brain. This perception occurs even when there is no external sound present.” So tinnitus is a subjective experience.
The loudness and sound of tinnitus will vary from person to person. In some individuals, like myself, you might even “feel” the tinnitus inside your head. Metallica drummer and tinnitus-sufferer Lars Ulrich described his tinnitus as a scratch inside your head that you can’t itch. That perfectly described my tinnitus when it was at its worst.
Tinnitus can be classified into different types based on its underlying causes. According to research conducted by a German ENT physician, Dr. Pawel Jastreboff, 80% of tinnitus cases can be categorized into three subtypes: cochlear, somatic, and stress-induced:
Cochlear Tinnitus: This type of tinnitus is directly related to changes in hearing loss. It is often associated with damage to the hair cells in the cochlea, which is responsible for converting sound vibrations into electrical signals that the brain can interpret.
Exposure to loud noises, whether from concerts, construction equipment, or firearms, can damage the delicate hair cells in the inner ear. This damage can lead to hearing loss and subsequently trigger tinnitus symptoms. Hearing loss is a big driver of tinnitus. It’s why the condition is a big issue among veterans and those who have worked in construction.
While hearing loss is a significant cause of tinnitus, Dr. Thompson emphasized that you can still develop tinnitus without hearing loss. Some viruses and bacterial infections can cause cochlear tinnitus. Some people who contracted COVID have reported developing tinnitus.
Somatic Tinnitus: Somatic tinnitus is often linked to the jaw, TMJ, upper neck conditions, posture, or dental issues. It is caused by the physical movement or dysfunction of these areas, which can affect the auditory system and trigger tinnitus symptoms.
Stress-Induced Tinnitus: Stress can have a significant impact on tinnitus. In many cases, individuals who experience stress or emotional turmoil for a prolonged period may develop tinnitus. The exact mechanisms behind this subtype are still being studied, but it is believed to be related to the body’s physiological response to stress. “For these people, often for three to six months leading up to the onset of tinnitus, there was a lot of disorder or stress in their life,” Ben told me.
I reckon my tinnitus developed due to hearing loss and possibly COVID. In high school, I’d go to a lot of punk rock shows at American Legion Halls and, like a dope, stand right next to the speakers without any ear protection. I also spent several years working at Jamba Juice, making smoothies with a row of loud blenders. My two bouts with COVID during the pandemic may then have exacerbated things and tipped me over the edge to developing full-on tinnitus.
Treating and Managing Tinnitus
If you’re experiencing tinnitus, it’s important to remember that there is hope for relief. While there is no known cure, various treatment options are available to help manage and reduce its impact on your daily life.
The First Step: Accurate Diagnosis
The first step in effectively managing tinnitus is to obtain an accurate diagnosis. Consulting with an audiologist or a healthcare professional specializing in tinnitus is crucial in determining the underlying cause of your tinnitus and developing an appropriate treatment plan.
Habituation to Tinnitus: Sound Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
While you can’t get rid of tinnitus, you can train your brain to stop thinking of it as a threat to your safety and to start ignoring it. This process is called habituation.
Thanks to neuroplasticity, your brain ignores things all the time. Take your nose, for example.
Your nose is actually in your field of vision. When you look out, you should see it. But you don’t.
Why not? Because your brain has learned to ignore it.
If you’ve been on a road trip where your windshield has collected a bunch of splattered bugs, you’ve likely experienced habituation. Your windshield is covered with dead bugs, but you keep driving without being bothered by them because your brain filters them out so you can stay focused on the road.
Ben Thompson and his team of audiologists combine two treatments to help tinnitus-suffers habituate to their tinnitus the same way your brain habituates you to the dead bugs on your windshield: sound therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy.
Sound therapy involves using external sounds to help mask or distract from the perception of tinnitus. The goal of sound therapy is twofold: 1) to provide immediate relief by reducing the prominence of tinnitus, and 2) to promote long-term habituation.
Various sound therapy options are available, ranging from wearable devices resembling hearing aids to smartphone apps and dedicated sound machines. These devices emit soothing sounds, such as white noise, nature sounds, or gentle melodies.
The key to successful sound therapy is finding the right balance between the external sound and the perceived tinnitus sound. The aim is not to completely mask the tinnitus. You still want to be able to hear your tinnitus a bit.
“The goal of sound therapy is to retrain the brain so that the constant sound of the tinnitus is not perceived as a threat,” Ben explained. “To desensitize yourself to the tinnitus noise, you still need to be aware of it. Ideal sound therapy gives you enough distraction so that the tinnitus doesn’t bother you while allowing your brain to habituate to it and ultimately lower the perception of the tinnitus.”
Sound therapy played a significant role in my tinnitus management. I downloaded the free “ReSound Relief” app on my phone. It allows you to create a variety of soundscapes to mask your tinnitus. I’d play it during the day while I worked in silence. Crickets combined with crackling fire is my go-to tinnitus sound mask. I made sure to set the volume so that I could still barely hear my tinnitus over the sound.
The sound therapy was incredibly helpful at night. I started wearing this Bluetooth headband with earbuds to bed that piped in my cricket and crackling campfire noise. Again, I made sure to set the volume so that I could still slightly hear my tinnitus. I got instant relief and could start going to sleep more easily while allowing my brain to habituate to the tinnitus.
After three months of consistent sound therapy, I hardly notice my tinnitus, even without the sound therapy. Ben has found that most tinnitus sufferers will experience immediate relief with sound therapy. It can take up to six months to a year for habituation to occur.
Ben and his audiologists will have patients who suffer from severe tinnitus wear sound therapy devices pretty much 24/7. The devices look like hearing aids and are constantly piping in a soothing noise to distract the person from their tinnitus while helping them habituate to it. You need to set the audio level on sound therapy devices correctly for them to be effective. If you want to go down this route, connect with an audiologist trained in treating tinnitus with sound therapy devices.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Ben combines sound therapy with cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of talk therapy that focuses on changing negative thought patterns and behaviors associated with tinnitus.
“Research does support that there’s this link between part of our brain called the limbic system and tinnitus,” Ben told me. “Tinnitus isn’t actually a physical threat to you, but our brain latches onto this tinnitus sound, treating it like a potentially dangerous sound, like the sound of a smoke alarm telling you there’s a fire. We then get hyper-focused on the tinnitus, which can make the tinnitus seem louder and more intrusive.”
The goal of CBT is to reframe your mental perception of your tinnitus. Instead of seeing it as a threat, you just see it as a neutral thing in your life that you can do something about.
While I didn’t do formal CBT with a counselor or audiologist, I applied CBT principles to myself. Whenever my tinnitus got really noticeable, and I started freaking out, I just reminded myself that my tinnitus wasn’t a threat. Visualizing my tinnitus as bugs on a windshield seemed to help the most in reframing my relationship with tinnitus. I’d then do things to help me manage my tinnitus like listening to my cricket sounds. Being proactive about my tinnitus helped me move from helpless mode to high-agency mode, reducing the stress I felt about having tinnitus.
Managing Tinnitus Flare-ups
While I rarely notice my tinnitus anymore, some days it flares up and gets really loud and noticeable. I asked Ben what causes that.
“The most common cause of flare-ups is stress in the central nervous system,” Ben said. “That could be related to a poor night’s sleep, being sick, or work or family stress.”
When I look back at my flare-ups, they usually occur when I’ve got a lot going on in my life and I’m not sleeping well.
The good news is that these flare-ups are usually temporary, and things typically settle back down. When I experience tinnitus spikes, I try to do things to chill the heck out, like getting more sleep, deep breathing, hanging out with friends, or sitting in my sauna.
I also start using my sound therapy again both during the day and night during flare-ups. It provides temporary relief so I can get on with my work and fall asleep.
My tinnitus spikes usually last a few days, and then my tinnitus goes back to being hardly perceptible. I stop using the sound therapy when that happens.
There Is Hope for Tinnitus
Tinnitus sucks. When I first got it, it really sent me into a despondent spiral.
There’s no cure for it. There are no supplements you can take to make it go away.
But it is very treatable and manageable.
Thanks to coming across Ben’s content on Treble Health, I hardly notice my tinnitus these days.
There is hope for tinnitus sufferers. It will take time and patience, but you can get your tinnitus under control. It can eventually be like bugs on a windshield. It might never go away, but it doesn’t have to prevent you from getting where you want to go and even enjoying the ride.