Study Shows Tinnitus Sufferers Retrain Brain To Cope With Noise

New research shows tinnitus sufferers are able to retrain their brains to help cope with constant ringing.

Tinnitus, an annoyingly persistent ringing in the ears, affects nearly one-third of adults over 65. People who suffer from tinnitus report a wide range of coping mechanisms. Many never come to terms with the constant buzzing, humming and ticking – but some people with chronic tinnitus have developed some unique ways of dealing with the problem, according to a new study.

In this study, just released by the University of Illinois, researchers discovered something intriguing – people who have developed the best coping mechanisms for living with tinnitus are utilizing pathways in the brain that people who cannot ignore symptoms don’t seem to have access to. The bottom line is: people who are less bothered by tinnitus symptoms use different brain regions when processing ‘emotional’ information.

The Study Results

Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), an imaging tool that makes it possible to see changes in blood oxygen levels in the brain while subjects are engaged in an activity. Results revealed that patients who coped better with tinnitus used an entirely different pathway to process emotional information. This pathway did not rely on the amygdala, which is believed to play a role in emotion processing in the brain. Instead, patients who had adapted to their tinnitus symptoms used more of the brain’s frontal lobe, a region critical for attention, planning and impulse control. The researchers suggested that the greater activation of the frontal lobe might be helping to control emotional responses and reduce tinnitus distress.

Tinnitus Is A Big Problem

According to the American Tinnitus Association more than 50 million Americans experience tinnitus, often to a debilitating degree, making it one of the most common health conditions in the U.S. It is estimated that about 20 million people struggle with chronic tinnitus, and 2 million of those have extreme and debilitating symptoms. Perhaps not surprising considering the noise of combat, veterans are the fastest growing segment of the population suffering from severe tinnitus, now estimated at about 972,000 individuals.

Hearing Loss And Tinnitus

Tinnitus is a condition frequently associated with hearing loss, and one that the audiologists at Hearing Center of Santa Rosa Head and Neck work with patients on an individual basis, to help relieve the symptoms, and make life better. The Hearing Center provides a wide range of current treatment options including the latest surgical procedures and hearing aid technologies. “For some people, tinnitus can cause a severe annoyance in everyday life,” explains audiologist Dr. John Jarvis. “Until researchers discover exactly how to teach everyone with tinnitus how to use different parts of the brain to process the emotional repercussions of constant noise, we offer the latest technology and behavioral training that is available. For many of our patients with tinnitus, symptoms will improve considerably with treatment.”

For some patients, identifying and then treating an underlying cause creates positive improvement. Other treatments are aimed at reducing or masking the noise, making symptoms less noticeable. “Because some patients adjust to the ringing in the ears while others never do, the perceived severity of the condition can vary significantly from one person to the next” says Dr. Jarvis. “Therefore, with all tinnitus patients, we conduct a thorough clinical evaluation, including a complete patient history and medication regimen, to help determine if tinnitus is present and what may be the underlying causes of the condition.”

Severity Of Symptoms

It may be difficult for people who have normal hearing to understand just how debilitating tinnitus can be. Tinnitus is clearly one condition that can have negative consequences to a patient’s overall health and well-being. Even moderate symptoms can interfere with a person’s ability to work and socialize. Most commonly reported symptoms include:

  • Anxiety & Depression
  • A sense of feeling distressed
  • Mood swings
  • Poor concentration
  • Problems sleeping
  • Pain (tinnitus accompanied by hyperacusis)
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