Tinnitus, commonly described as a ringing in the ears, is the perception of sound when no external sound is present, and it affects between 50 and 60 million people in the US. It is a common condition in adults.
Not a disease, tinnitus is a symptom of age-related hearing loss. The source may be the tiny hairs (cilia) in the ear’s cochlea. These hairs are responsible not only for hearing but for balance. They are not regenerative and are damaged by excessive noise, disease, or toxins. Once gone, there is no remediation.
Tinnitus can be a nuisance and highly distracting, but it is not typically harmful. Treatment can be managed with hearing aids or other sound-masking devices. But there’s more here than meets the eye because research has pointed to several factors, sleep deficiency, anxiety, depression, and stress, as affecting the sound’s intensity and occurrence.
Stress plays an essential role in the loudness or the noise in the ears, and it is here that we can help ourselves. Engaging in stress-reducing techniques would seem worthwhile for tinnitus sufferers.
Patients with tinnitus took part in a study of 180 subjects with chronic tinnitus and were administered a particular scale, the Tinnitus Handicap Inventory. The scale evaluates how tinnitus impacted their quality of life. Sixty-five percent of the subjects had stress symptoms.
The researchers showed a clear progression of increase in stress with the measures noted on the inventory. As stress increases, therefore, the impact of tinnitus has a greater quality of life effect on these individuals.
What effect does a lack of sleep have on tinnitus’ quality of life?
Several measures have been used to assess tinnitus associated with anxiety of a state or trait level. Is the person mostly anxious all of the time, i.e., trait anxiety, or is it the situation in which they find themselves, i.e., state anxiety? Also, levels of sleep quality were assessed related to whether or not the person had a bed partner or they found it difficult to fall asleep, their sleep duration, and sleep medications that they may have been using.
At least one study indicated that quality of life had an overriding effect on tinnitus severity, along with levels of depression. The researchers suggested, Since the category of major depression does not include tinnitus as a characteristic entity, we are forced to conclude that depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders are rather a consequence of the helplessness induced by the uncontrollable phantom sound.
But some research points to something other than sleep or stress; habituation. As data accumulate from cross-sectional behavioral and brain imaging studies, the neural bases of successful habituation are becoming more apparent, pointing to interconnected neural networks mediating cognition and emotion and, only secondarily, audition. What remains unclear are the longitudinal changes in these networks culminating in successful habituation, with or without an intervention. Anyone who uses a hearing aid will experience a period of adjustment (habituation) to their new level of hearing and the device. Tinnitus may require the same adjustment.
Here, thanks to neuroimaging, we see how the brain and our efforts can have a neural impact on the brain. By exercising this personal power, we may overcome the effects of tinnitus on our lives.
Research at the University of Michigan Engineering is already showing progress on a device that might utilize adjacent neural connections to the auditory system and could help anyone with tinnitus. Not a new finding; they’ve completed 15 years of work on tinnitus, how it is created, and where remediation may lie.