Ringing in the ears?
May 26, 2012 11:23 AM   Subscribe

New hope for tinnitus sufferers.

Researchers in the Netherlands, in conjunction with their colleagues elsewhere, announced the results (paywalled) of a new study that takes a CBT approach to tinnitus, more commonly known as "ringing in the ears" that shows the first signs of promise for relief of the often maddening disorder. Alternative therapies exist. Spiders not included.
posted by digitalprimate (36 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I have had bouts of tinnitus for years. No doubt living for five years across the street from a batch plant (aka cement factory) was a major contributing factor. There is a constant hum which is a welcome alternative to the occasional unmuffable screech. Silence, such as it is, overwhelms me from time to time, because those other noises gain ground (I said noises, not voices; I am a lot of things but psychotic is not one of them--yet--). I am glad that work is being done to find ways of alleviating this condition. For me, I either sit in silence and grin and bear it, or listen to music and drown it out. Thanks for your post.
posted by emhutchinson at 11:36 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's true, getting used to it and learning how to tune it out (which is essentially what is being discussed here) are very effective palliatives for tinnitus, but I thought that was already pretty well established.

(A not so great palliative: "Don't call it tinnitus. Call it 'Ear Fairies'!")
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 11:37 AM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

posted by homunculus at 11:42 AM on May 26, 2012

Well, that was exciting for a second. When I first started hearing ringing about 20 years ago, I really thought it was going to lead to psychological problems, but I got used to it quickly. Mine's kind of a ringing/crickets chirping combo at this point. I hear it all the time but don't think about it much.
posted by Huck500 at 11:47 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I actually seem to get ringing in my ears if I eat gluten, strangely enough.

Now if they could only do something for eye floaters.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 11:49 AM on May 26, 2012


Actually I have fairly good hearing but the tinnitus is just this constant noise on top of every other noise. I did a lot of reading when I first started having this problem and most of the stuff I read indicated that unless you have something going degeneratively wrong with your ears and hearing (which I didn't) the main problem is the anxiety over the noise making you crazy. People deal with this in different ways but it sounds a lot like what they are talking about here. I had thought that was not groundbreaking, but maybe the combo of the noise retraining plus the CBT about managing it better is a new mix with better results. It's one of the reasons I really like being in places with big whirring HVAC systems, it's really the closest thing I get to quiet in my head nowadays.
posted by jessamyn at 11:53 AM on May 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

My epic jerkishness makes itself unmistakably known when I realize how much I want the bbc to troll those posts with a high pitched ringing sound you can't turn off.
posted by elizardbits at 11:58 AM on May 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

jessamyn—I've been collecting vintage electric fans since I was about eight or nine, and I've become an expert at maintaining, repairing, and restoring the lovely old things because I always had this sense of peace and calm with one whirring away nearby, all year long. When I got older and realized that not everyone has the sound of an old school picture tube flyback transformer zeeeeeeing away in their head all the time, I found that I'd been self-medicating all along.

Suffice it to say that my love of Eno probably has roots in the same place.
posted by sonascope at 12:02 PM on May 26, 2012 [8 favorites]

PSA time: don't go to live shows or loud clubs without a good pair of earplugs. These are just $13, they're unobtrusive and last forever (until you lose them!), and best of all, they make loud music sound better. Get these and I promise you'll never leave a show with your ears ringing again... nor will you wake up one morning to find that the ringing just won't go away, as far too many of my friends have.
posted by vorfeed at 12:07 PM on May 26, 2012 [6 favorites]

I have a similiar problem with my X-ray vision.
posted by humanfont at 12:07 PM on May 26, 2012

Yes, but what if the cure was spiders?
posted by elizardbits at 12:25 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Great. My noisy neighborhood usually drowns out my tinitus but sitting here reading about it reminded me that it is there and it now is maddeningly blocking the freeway noise.

Because where I live has that low hum of noise I don't usually hear it. But when I go to my mom's house for the holiday and go to bed in complete silence it seems super loud. So I have to play music or something to be able to sleep. To me there are times when it is too quiet.
posted by birdherder at 12:26 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had the chirping type of this for a few months last year, but luckily it went away.

I never want to go back to that hell again.
posted by GavinR at 12:26 PM on May 26, 2012

These therapies seem aimed at reducing anxiety and depression, but none of this seems able to help me hear better, which is what I need. I'm used to the constant screeching whistle; I have been for decades.

What I need is to be able to hear the consonant sounds masked by the tinnitus so I can better understand human speech.
posted by tommyD at 12:28 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:30 PM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Cool Papa - Come to my house and that's what our TV sounds like. Pity my poor wife...
posted by tommyD at 12:32 PM on May 26, 2012

Retraining and talk therapy? Pah. Call me when there's a pill I can take.

Silenex may cause headache, drowsiness, changes in mood, depression, anxiety, upset stomach, and suicidal thoughts. If your tinnitus worsens or begins manifesting as demonic voices, stop taking Silenex immediately and call your doctor. Ask your doctor about Silenex.
posted by Scientist at 12:33 PM on May 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

elizardbits: Yes, but what if the cure was spiders?

I'm sure the tapeworms in the brain will make short work of the spiders.
posted by dr_dank at 12:42 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Mine's definitely constant, and pretty strong at that (it drowns out the sound of real crickets, so that I don't hear them unless they're very close by), so I'm careful to cultivate my happily solid non-anxiety about it. And that's effective enough for me to not take any notice most of the time; it's a high-pitched persistent ring in both ears, but more often than not, it just plain doesn't register.
posted by progosk at 12:51 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

the sound of an old school picture tube flyback transformer zeeeeeeing away in their head all the time

That's exactly how I would want to describe mine, but I figured no one would know what the hell I was talking about. Or at least how I would have described it a few years ago. Lately there's been a lot extra hissing being added.

I also was excited to read about any possible cure. I already deal with it well enough.
posted by DarkForest at 1:41 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm really glad my tinnitus only comes around in stress + "coder's posture" situations when my trapezius tenses up big time, I couldn't deal with that eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee all the time.
posted by jason_steakums at 2:16 PM on May 26, 2012

Mine's pretty constant, but I honestly don't notice it most of the time, and it doesn't drown out any other noise. It really only annoys me when it's otherwise too silent. I can't sleep with the window closed because I need the ambient noise to cover the tinnitus. Still, I was hoping for some magic pill, not "deal with it like you're already dealing with it."
posted by yasaman at 2:46 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've had spiders in my ears. It's hard to resist the urge to use a screwdriver to get them out. That'll solve any hearing issue.
posted by blue_beetle at 3:00 PM on May 26, 2012

You know what's really great? Tinnitus + Migraines. That'll wreck you for a coupla days, easy. The last one was so bad I forgot my middle name for a while.
posted by Drewstre at 3:49 PM on May 26, 2012

tinnitus + migraines + vertigo = my personal trifecta of hell
posted by elizardbits at 5:26 PM on May 26, 2012

My tinnitus is due to a lifelong issue with a combination of sinus issues added to narrow eustachian tubes. It's a high pitched ringing I have yet to find a palliative sound to help with and it does indeed interfere with my everyday hearing. I would not say it causes me any stress other than some basic frustration as I have basically resigned myself to it.

My family doesn't have a gene pool, it has a cess pool.
posted by Samizdata at 8:07 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

A couple of years in the army and my hearing is figuratively shot. A constant eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee with the occasional uuuuuuuuuuuuu like a tv station going off the air, does that even happen anymore? Sometimes I wish I could have my ears paved over.

I don't notice the ringing except when I'm tired, or when my wife gets frustrated with me asking to repeat herself, or frustrated by my pretending to understand what she just said because I'm to embarrassed to ask her to repeat herself yet again. Please don't talk to me from the other room.
posted by furtive at 11:17 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Mine is often a high pitched whistle - much like a whistling kettle. I’ve had the chirping too!

To conclude that I might have some anxiety due to my tinnitus and that my anxiety makes my tinnitus more noticeable than perhaps it may need to be…well, likely spoken by someone who probably does not have tinnitus!. I was given this advice by many Doctor’s, over twenty years ago, when the tinnitus started (after a heavy dose of antibiotics). One even told me that it was “all in my head”. I get the therapy can help with coping deal - but I also read a little bit of "blame the patient" in this kind of article.

That being said, the therapy approach is nothing new. People were doing biofeedback (way back then) for tinnitus. The biofeedback was to teach a state of relaxation and refocus, so that you were not primarily hearing the tinnitus. I never had the patience for it – but it made sense back then and it does today.

Similar to item, I keep an ear piece in, always tuned to talk radio – or I create some other ambient noise in the room. A sterile, sound proof room would be the death of me.
posted by what's her name at 7:38 AM on May 27, 2012

I have had a constant high-pitched whine for perhaps a decade. I suspect it stems from 10 years working on the ramp at various airports, even though I was good about keeping my headphones on. The whine of the Auxiliary Power Unit jets was a particular problem.

If the sound is constant, as mine mostly is, it becomes chronic and easily ignored. I suddenly notice it every few days, and then forget about it. I'm an ex-smoker, and it's similar to the occasional crave; over in seconds.

I think that there would be value in researching an 'anti-whine' transmitter that would broadcast the opposite sound, like the sound-deadening devices. Given that the device couldn't hear an individual's sound, he or she would have to tune it to optimize the effect on what they were hearing, and this would probably work best for those with a constant pitch. But, there is a trade-off; if you're able to eliminate the tinnitus sometimes, you'd want to do it all the time, and you'd spend a lot of time doing just that. And I spend virtually no time now dealing with it.
posted by bc_fred at 10:19 AM on May 27, 2012

Mine's apparently from my hyperthyroidism (now hypothyroidism after treatment). It's steadily gotten worse over the last 5-6 years in my right ear, so that I can barely hear anything on that side. I often have to make sure my friends are on my left so I can hear them, especially higher-pitched voices. I'm useless in bars, clubs, or louder restaurants, especially with music playing.

Insurance won't pay for a hearing aid, so I'm stuck until I can afford to get one. By that time, of course, I won't hear much at all.
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:16 AM on May 27, 2012

I'm useless in bars, clubs, or louder restaurants, especially with music playing.

Yeah, the main rage-inducing part of it for me is that I'm spending so much time trying to hear the things I want to hear over the thing I don't (eeeeeEEEEEEeeeeUuuuUUuuuEEEEEaaaaaa), that when there are multiple people talking at once, or one person talking over other background noise, I'm completely fucking lost.
posted by elizardbits at 11:56 AM on May 27, 2012

Hm, now that I pay attention I suppose I have a constant ringing. Perhaps I don't notice it because I pretty much never find myself in complete silence. Or perhaps it's just not as bad as it could be. I suppose if I know what's good for me I should just continue to not notice it.
posted by Defenestrator at 2:10 PM on May 27, 2012

I have tinnitus so bad that it makes the dogs across street howl. Sometimes the tones harmonize, sometimes they don't. Most times they are very high frequencies, just at the edge of my range of hearing....you know, dog whistle stuff. Over the years, I have complained about this to doctors. I told one doctor I had constant ringing in my ears, and he said it was just tinnitus, not to worry. I told another that I had tinnitus, and he said that's just ringing in your ears, so don't worry about it.

I'm not making this up.

Okay, I made up the part about the barking dogs.
posted by mule98J at 4:36 PM on May 27, 2012

I broke a land-speed record clicking through to the article, and...oh...talk therapy to help one cope with the annoyance of tinnitus...

My own tinnitus (thanks, Thai Air, for your incredibly crap pressurization on short-hop flights) is a gauzy squeal. I've had it for over 15+ years. I wish I could have silence again, but, to date, I tolerate my second shadow pretty well, even though ambient noise (the A/C, for example) can't mask it once I become aware of it.
posted by the sobsister at 5:03 PM on May 27, 2012

Whatever their other shortcomings, CBT researchers don't appear to lack for confidence.

I think tinnitus arises in the first place out of a brain program to improve hearing in the face of problems with the hearing apparatus, a sort of software (or firmware) fix for a hardware problem, if you will-- and a fix which has a family resemblance to stochastic resonance, but is more sophisticated.
Stochastic resonance is observed when noise added to a system changes the system's behaviour in some fashion. More technically, SR occurs if the signal-to-noise ratio of a nonlinear system or device increases for moderate values of noise intensity. It often occurs in bistable systems or in systems with a sensory threshold and when the input signal to the system is "sub-threshold". For lower noise intensities, the signal does not cause the device to cross threshold, so little signal is passed through it. For large noise intensities, the output is dominated by the noise, also leading to a low signal-to-noise ratio. For moderate intensities, the noise allows the signal to reach threshold, but the noise intensity is not so large as to swamp it. Thus, a plot of signal-to-noise ratio as a function of noise intensity shows a '∩' shape.
I think the brain isn't adding broad spectrum noise to the output of the ears to improve s/n ratio, but instead, adds specific frequencies the brain has determined the ear is deficient in picking up, and that it guesses are there, even though the output of the ear doesn't reflect that, and I think it adds those frequencies at the level it guesses they're there at, too.

jessamyn, you once mentioned that you hear high-frequency sounds that most adults cannot, such as the whine of fly-back transformers, but that children and other asthmatics typically can hear.

That's a very interesting feature of asthma I'd never heard of before (though it is well established) and it caused me to reflect that children may not lose this ability as they grow up because of the aging process per se, but because it's edited out by the immune system as unnecessary during a period of consolidation, but not in asthmatics, because in them the immune system is somewhat hobbled since if it wasn't, they would be more likely to die during an asthma attack

Is the tinnitus you mention a high-pitched whine? High frequencies are more likely to damage the ears, and that might be reason enough for most of us to get rid of insufficiently useful high range sensitivity during the critical period, given the very noisy current environment in which we live, since that could help limit the possibilities of developing tinnitus later.

If in tinnitus the brain is adding guessed-at levels of sound perception at frequencies the ear is deficient in hearing, that would explain why white noise is often an efficient masker of tinnitus, because such noise is relatively smooth and even across the spectrum, as well as time-invariant, and once you turn the noise up to the level the brain is adding, the tinnitus would disappear, in the sense that a tinnitus sufferer and a normal person would essentially hear the same thing.

And I think that could suggests a possible sound therapy regimen to reprogram the brain: in an otherwise silent room, turn up the white noise to the minimal level at which the tinnitus is fully masked, then very gradually reduce the level of the white noise in hopes that the brain will reduce the noise it's adding in concert with the white noise in order to maintain perceptual constancy.
posted by jamjam at 3:24 PM on May 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Well, I failed joining the military when I was younger due to high frequency hearing loss (couldn't hear the high tones over the tinnitus), so you might just be on to something there.
posted by Samizdata at 8:10 PM on June 2, 2012

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