On a good day, tinnitus resembled sirens and howling wind for singer-songwriter Ryan Adams. On a bad day, the sounds emulated standing in front of jet engine, he once told Us Weekly. Adams said the high-pitch frequency in his left ear was near constant a decade ago and led to a tinnitus diagnosis.
Not everyone with tinnitus experiences such extreme symptoms, but anyone who has lived with the ringing, buzzing or hissing knows the emotional and physical toll it takes. Losing trust and control over hearing, including the annoying ongoing internal sound, leads to emotional and psychological stress.
Often described as a phantom sound, tinnitus is an audiological and neurological condition that causes perception of an inner-ear frequency without an external source, according to the American Tinnitus Association. It is associated with hearing loss and a diminished quality of life, and it may affect as many as 1 in 5 Americans, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Since tinnitus isn’t a disease, rather a condition based on patient reports, diagnosis and treatments vary widely. Because there is no known cure, experts disagree on the best way to help. Mostly, they try to address the symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, insomnia and concentration issues.
But now, music therapy could be the answer, Neurology Now reported this month. It retrains the brain to accept a “new normal” that includes the annoying humming.
Neuro-music therapy, for example, uses tone sequencing to train the auditory system to adjust to the internal sound and decrease sensitivity to the frequency. Because tinnitus ringing is an auditory perception like music, neuro-music therapy intervention supplements the symptoms with external acoustics to re-map a patient’s response to the internal ringing.
For this sort of music therapy to be effective, each patient’s specific pitch has to be measured and matched. In fact, traditional music therapy methods may be falling short because they don’t measure and match tinnitus frequency, which can vary day-to-day.
To increase effective response to neuro-music therapy and decrease tinnitus perception over time, pitch-matching should be routinely tested, researchers at the German Center for Music Therapy Research said in the Journal of the American Academy of Audiology. The data suggests that daily frequency tests help sound therapists adjust as patients’ internal frequencies fluctuate.
The study used the Heidelberg Model of Music Therapy for Chronic Tinnitus, which has shown to effectively reduce symptoms by establishing a tinnitus-equivalent sound that helps patients externalize a pitch previously only heard internally. Other studies have suggested that this practice can be therapeutic in and of itself by validating patients’ experiences as part of the methodology.
Like many conditions that lack visible signs, people with tinnitus report varying symptom intensity and subsequent effects on daily life that can be hard to objectively measure. Because there is no cure, experts suggest coping mechanisms to help reframe perception and response to tinnitus, University of Texas at Dallas Researchers wrote in the International Journal of Otolaryngology.
Likewise, people with tinnitus report that their permanent awareness of the tinnitus and inability to discriminate sounds hurt their self-confidence and trust in their own faculties.
Tinnitus frequency varies over time, and interventions that account for the variation give the patient a better chance to calibrate their own response and symptom management once therapy ends.
Tinnitus pathology is misunderstood by patient and practitioners alike. Relying on self-reported data from patients can be frustrating for doctors and hampers their ability to accurately diagnose and prescribe treatment.
Because tinnitus is characterized by two factors—the actual phantom sound perception and the subsequent emotional response, or distress—it can be hard to pinpoint a patient’s response and the best treatment methods.
The data gathered from the German Center for Music Therapy Research suggests that by incorporating patient variance into the neuro-music therapy, it helps tailor tinnitus therapy per individual and gives them the power in their own recovery.
Top image: Nickolai Kashirin, CC-BY
Erica Hensley is a health and medical journalist based in Athens, Georgia.