Tinnitus is a common complaint among people who visit audiologists: nearly 50 million Americans — or up to 20 percent of the population — have some form of the condition. For some tinnitus cases, an audiologist may recommend hearing aids, but some people might balk at this potential solution. Hearing aids are often associated with someone who lost their hearing due to old age, and those with tinnitus may be reluctant to give them a shot. How do these devices so strongly associated with hearing loss help tinnitus?
What is tinnitus?
Tinnitus is a symptom, rather than a cause, of an underlying condition that impacts the ears. These symptoms include incessant ringing, clicking, buzzing, or other harsh perceived sounds in your ear. These sounds may come and go, or they may be a permanent part of your everyday hearing. No matter how frequent or infrequent they are, these distracting sounds make hearing considerably more challenging.
What causes tinnitus?
Although tinnitus doesn’t cause or exaggerate hearing loss, it can certainly be a symptom of hearing loss. Instead, exposure to loud or harsh noise, whether as an occupational hazard or via frequent attendance of high-volume concerts and events, is one of the leading causes of tinnitus.
Other conditions not related to hearing loss may cause tinnitus. These conditions include:
- An ear blockage due to infection, wax, or tumor
- Cochlear degeneration due to aging
- High blood pressure
- Jaw and neck issues
- Circulatory issues
- A head or neck injury
Is there a cure for tinnitus?
There is no currently known cure for tinnitus. Instead, hearing professionals recommend tinnitus therapy which can help manage the condition. These therapies are focused on managing the perceived sounds in your ears, helping you minimize the effects of tinnitus on your hearing and overall well-being.
What are the common forms of tinnitus therapy?
The two most common forms of tinnitus therapy are hearing aids and maskers. According to a survey of audiologists and other hearing loss specialists, 60 percent of tinnitus patients said that their hearing aids help them experience at least some relief, and another 22 percent of respondents said that their hearing aids help them experience significant relief. Other people with tinnitus prefer maskers since they emit sounds that disguise ringing, clicking, and buzzing instead of amplifying sound like hearing aids do.
Masking is one of four common sound therapies that can help address tinnitus. Masking introduces the ear to white noise of a louder volume than tinnitus ringing, and in doing so, masking distracts the ear from processing tinnitus sounds while not altering the rest of what the ear hears. Distraction, unlike masking, depends on directing the ear toward an external sound such as white noise that can help the brain to reorient its focus away from tinnitus sounds.
Another sound therapy known as habituation trains the brain to reclassify tinnitus sounds as too unimportant to register and can sometimes be achieved with notched-music and modified sound devices. The fourth common sound therapy, called neuromodulation, targets neural hyperactivity that might be the anatomical cause of tinnitus by emitting specialized sounds that minimize this phenomenon. Many combination devices are available that use more than one of these sound therapy methods to address tinnitus.
Hearing aids vs. maskers
Although hearing aids and maskers are the two most common forms of tinnitus therapy, they use completely different approaches to address tinnitus. To understand the difference between these devices, it may be helpful to know that maskers cannot address the hearing loss that often underlies tinnitus, whereas hearing aids can.
A masker works by emitting sounds that cover up annoying tinnitus sounds such as ringing, clicking, and buzzing. These sounds, which are often white noise, can at once provide a background into which tinnitus sounds blend and cover tinnitus sounds without muffling the rest of your hearing. In no way do maskers amplify noise that enters the ear.
Hearing aids, on the other hand, are primarily designed to amplify noise that enters the ear. In doing so, hearing aids may make up for the sounds that you can’t hear over your tinnitus. An audiologist is best qualified to determine whether hearing aids or maskers are the better devices for combating your tinnitus.
How can hearing aids help tinnitus?
Hearing aids can help tinnitus patients find relief by amplifying the volume of sound that enters the ear so strongly that the brain struggles to perceive the ringing, clicking, and buzzing sounds caused by tinnitus. To explain this concept more clearly, many hearing aid specialists compare tinnitus to a cricket chirping and a tinnitus patient wearing hearing aids to a waterfall, because against the sounds of the latter, you won’t hear the former. For some newer hearing aid models, the waterfall analogy is literal: some smartphone-compatible hearing aids will mask tinnitus with white noise and other sounds played from the connected device.
Hearing aid wearers additionally tend to experience lessened tinnitus symptoms due to hearing aids amplifying sounds aimed directly at them, such as conversational remarks. With hearing aids, your brain will prioritize processing the sounds aimed directly at you instead of your tinnitus sounds, helping to mitigate your symptoms.
Pros and cons of hearing aids for tinnitus
As with any health-based decision, there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to determining whether you should buy hearing aids to address your tinnitus. Consider the following pros and cons of hearing aids for tinnitus as you make your choice, in addition to following the advice provided by a hearing professional.
Pros of hearing aids for tinnitus
- Minimize annoying sounds. When you use hearing aids to address your tinnitus, you may experience fewer – or, sometimes, none – of the annoying ringing, clicking, and buzzing sounds you associate with tinnitus.
- Non-invasive. You don’t need invasive procedures or bulky, unwieldy items to combat your tinnitus. Hearing aids are compact and often lie out of sight in or behind your ear. Fitting a hearing aid to your ear is a hassle-free experience that any qualified hearing aid specialist can offer you.
- Addresses other hearing loss. Tinnitus is a symptom of hearing loss, not a cause of it, so if you use hearing aids to combat your tinnitus, you may find yourself regaining hearing that you didn’t even know you lost.
Cons of hearing aids for tinnitus
- Price. Hearing aids, like any piece of cutting edge technology can have a significant price spread and are not always covered by insurance. Although you can find some hearing aids that run under $1,000 for a pair, some hearing aids can cost over $3,000 each. This is why it is crucial to consult with a trained audiology professional before making your choice.
- Relief isn’t guaranteed. Out of the approximately 50 million cases of tinnitus in the U.S., 20 million of them are chronic, and about 2 million of them are debilitating. Sometimes, these difficult cases cannot be addressed with hearing aids. This is another reason why working with a professional is critical, and self-care can be costly.
Can I keep my tinnitus from getting worse?
Tinnitus therapy is only one part of managing your tinnitus. You also need to take extra care to not worsen your tinnitus. You can avoid exacerbating your tinnitus by steering clear of loud settings and forgoing alcohol and smoking. If your work requires you to be around loud noise, use earplugs, earmuffs, noise-canceling headphones, or other hearing protection devices to shield your ears.
You can also address your tinnitus by being upfront about it with people. If you’re struggling to hear someone over your tinnitus because the person isn’t facing you directly, kindly ask them to do so. You can also ask people to speak more loudly and clearly.
Hearing aids for tinnitus: Am I a candidate?
You might be a candidate for hearing aids for tinnitus if the volume of the clicking, ringing, and buzzing decisions in your ear is preventing you from focusing during conversations with others or completing your usual everyday tasks. That said, merely having tinnitus doesn’t mean that your case requires hearing aids to address – only audiologists have the level of knowledge about all things hearing that will allow you to decide. You may benefit from a different type of sound therapy or from a masker, depending on your specific case of tinnitus.
At I Love Hearing, our hearing professionals and audiologists have decades of experience working in tinnitus therapy using both hearing aids and maskers. We make visiting us easy – we operate multiple offices in Manhattan, Nassau County, and the greater New York metro so that you don’t have to travel far out of your way to get vital help addressing your tinnitus.
If you do want to try hearing aids to help combat tinnitus, I Love Hearing uniquely offers nearly every major hearing aid brand offered on the market in the U.S. This means you can choose from a massive array of models, designs, and features.
We know that any decisions you make toward combating your hearing loss can be deeply personal and challenging. At I Love Hearing, we believe in educating our patients so they fully understand their options, so they feel empowered to choose the best solution for them. Contact us today to book an appointment to discuss managing tinnitus symptoms with one of our specialists.