The CDC estimates that over 45 million Americans (15% of the general public) experiences some degree of ringing, whooshing, buzzing, or similar sensation in their ears when no noise is actually present. This condition is called tinnitus, and it can be a severe interruption to daily life. For 20 million Americans, their tinnitus is chronic and burdensome. For 2 million Americans, their tinnitus is extreme and debilitating.
What is tinnitus?
Because tinnitus can be such a large disruption in a person's life, some may be surprised to learn that it's actually a symptom stemming from an underlying cause. Sometimes this cause is an obstruction in the ear, such as a large wax buildup, or ear injury or trauma. Sometimes it's brought on by stress or certain medications. However, the most common condition causing tinnitus is hearing loss, either age-related or noise-induced. Tinnitus symptoms may also begin as a result of a sudden, extremely loud sound like an explosion or gun shot, or it may present itself gradually over time.
Some people who have tinnitus don't find that it interrupts their life too much, but many people report that it disrupts their ability to sleep, concentrate, or live normally.
The good news is that many hearing aids can help reduce the awareness and disturbance and manage tinnitus symptoms. Some even come with features that can be used in provider-directed tinnitus therapy.
How do hearing aids provide tinnitus relief?
The most basic way hearing aids can help you if you experience tinnitus is by subtly amplifying background noise to help reduce the awareness of tinnitus. This means your brain can focus on the sounds you want to hear instead of the sound of your tinnitus.
Hearing aids can also help keep tinnitus from interfering with your ability to participate in conversations and other social situations by gently amplifying sounds that are directed right at you. This will help you focus on the sound of someone's voice, the television, or whatever else you're trying to listen to instead of your tinnitus symptoms. If these sounds are made to be just a bit louder than your symptoms, then your tinnitus will no longer interrupt your ability to enjoy them.
In an article by researchers Heller and Bergman, they indicated that 94% of people with normal hearing experienced tinnitus when in a quiet environment. Under these circumstances, your brain is able to pick up on existing soft-level sounds that we don't notice in a noisy world. Therefore, if you have hearing loss that's not being appropriately amplified, you'll experience more quiet environments and can be made more aware of your tinnitus.
Many of today's hearing aids include a technological feature meant to directly work with a person's tinnitus. They play white noise or artificial sounds directly into your ear to provide a sound meant to decrease the signal-to-noise ratio of the bothersome tinnitus sound. This form of tinnitus therapy helps retrain your brain to “turn down” the volume of your tinnitus symptoms during everyday life. Hearing aids that connect to smartphones can also play sounds to encourage a sound-enriched environment through special smartphone apps. Ask your hearing health professional about these options.
It's also highly recommended that you pair the use of hearing aids and sound generators with other forms of tinnitus management such as education programs, counseling, and support groups.