Tinnitus and The Science Behind Change

We have learned from neuroscience that the mind is changeable or “plastic,” meaning the actual structure of the brain can change with experience. A mindfulness practice is a way of influencing this change and positively creating new wiring in the brain circuitry.

For the person experiencing bothersome tinnitus, this is certainly good news. According to the American Journal of Medicine, about 16 million people were bothered enough by chronic tinnitus in the past year to report tinnitus to their doctors. Some 1 to 2 million people live with tinnitus that is severe enough to interfere with their abilities to function in daily life.

Using mindful awareness, we can shine a light on the mind’s inaccurate, habitual reaction to tinnitus signals and see it for what it really is: a sensation that does not need to be monitored by the mind, poses no credible threat to survival, and, therefore, can safely fade from our conscious awareness. 

Compelling studies support the argument that mindfulness can lead to more adaptive changes in a patient’s response to old and new stimuli.

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How Can You Protect Your Ears?

The best way to protect your ears is to avoid loud sounds. But this is not always easy to do. So the next best way to protect your ears is to use earplugs. Earplugs are easy to find and range in quality. Standard earplugs can be found in most pharmacies. They can also be purchased at an audiologist’s or hearing professional’s office. The materials that are used to make ear plugs can vary. Some are disposable and made of foam, others are made of plastic and can be re-used.

Tinnitus and the Ears

The question often arises: “Doesn’t the ringing associated with tinnitus come from the ears?” Ask anyone with tinnitus and they can tell you how the sensation feels more like it is coming from somewhere in their head. When tinnitus is “unilateral” it means it is heard in one ear. “Bilateral” means it is heard in both ears. And this is, in fact, true. We know now that tinnitus is actually a problem not in the ears but in the brain. Although most cases of tinnitus come with some amount of hearing loss, it is the brain’s mis-interpretation of the signal that results in the ringing, chirping, whooshing, crackling noises we call tinnitus.

About the Ears

anatomyThe ear can be divided into three sections, the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. Hearing loss or pain in the outer or middle ear is often easy to treat. However, when our hearing sensory organ—the cochlea—in the inner ear is damaged, permanent hearing loss is the result. This is also known as sensori-neural hearing loss. Inside the cochlea we have these fragile hair cells, or cilia, that take an electrical signal and convert this to a chemical signal. This chemical signal is then transmitted to the auditory nerve and sound processing centers in the brain. The hair cells are laid out from low to high frequencies, much like the keys of a piano go from low to high notes. When this strip of hair cells is rolled into the cochlea, high frequency hair cells, the ones closest to the  the cochlea’s opening, are the ones most exposed to potential injury. This is why we usually lose our hearing up in the higher frequencies as we age. Once these tiny hair cells are damaged, hearing loss is the inevitable result.

Can Hearing Aids Help?

Hearing aids are helpful for some people suffering with tinnitus. Theories describing the onset of tinnitus explain how the tinnitus sound occurs in the frequencies that are lost. Therefore, a hearing aid may help: 1) it gives us more sound stimulation, and 2) it allows more sound to enter the ear, providing the ear and brain with enough stimulation so that tinnitus is not triggered. Your audiologist can fit you with hearing aids to see if using them could be helpful.