You might be hearing a buzz, whistle, click, or ring. The sound might be continuous or come in spells. But other people can’t hear it at all--it’s coming from your own brain.
About ten percent of American adults have tinnitus in any given year, according to a 2016 review of existing data. The problem is more common among firefighters and other people exposed to loud sounds. About a third of all people with tinnitus hear the sound continually while awake, and for some, it can be serious.
The problem isn't your hearing or damage to your ear. Tinnitus is caused by an error in the parts of the brain that process sound, sometimes traceable to a disease as well as noise pollution. The available remedies don’t stop the sound but can help you live with it more easily.
Among those remedies, cognitive behavioral therapy specifically for this problem has the most scientific backing, a 2016 review concluded. Do you tend to be anxious? About 45 percent of tinnitus patients have suffered from an anxiety disorder during their lives. CBT is also recommended for anxiety, so it could help you on both counts.
But something else may be the main cause: research suggests that people with tinnitus also tend to have slower processing speeds and reaction times.
Let's be clear: "slow" is not the same as lacking in intelligence. Some students, for example, do extremely well on tests but need more time to complete them.
In a 2012 paper, a research group at Washington University in St. Louis compared the severity of tinnitus to a measure of auditory processing speed in 92 tinnitus patients. The group also tested the volunteers for signs of anxiety or depression. Both slow processing speed and the psychological symptoms each, separately, predicted the severity of tinnitus.
If you have tinnitus and you don’t feel anxious but do think you might be “slow,” you might consider brain–training exercises. In a 2017 report, the Washington University team concluded that an online brain training program helped about half of a group of patients who had had bothersome tinnitus for at least six months.
The program will take time: Twenty volunteers spent an hour a day on the exercises, five days a week, for eight weeks. Another twenty served as the control group and didn’t do the exercises. The researchers did brain scans and tested the volunteers at the beginning and end of the experiment.
Seven of the people who did the exercises showed measurable improvement in their tinnitus and ten thought that they had improved. In the brain scans, the researchers found that the volunteers who had done the exercises showed significant improvement in parts of the brains tied to attention.
If you want to try, the exercises are available with a subscription at brainhq.com. Look for descriptions of Sound Sweeps (try it for free) Fine Tuning, Syllable Stacks, Memory Grid, In The Know, To-Do List Training, and Hear-Hear.
The prestigious Cochrane group has looked at the evidence for each of the other common therapies for tinnitus--masking devices, transcranial magnetic stimulation, wearing hearing aids, or taking zinc--and found insufficient evidence for a recommendation, if any at all. The group was a bit more positive about cognitive behavioral therapy.
However, when it comes to hearing aids, if you have hearing loss, being able to hear better in more situations is essential for many other reasons and shouldn’t make your tinnitus worse. Talk to an ear, eye, nose and throat doctor about your options.
A version of this story will appear at Your Care Everywhere.