Tinnitus is widespread in the United States with approximately 50 million sufferers over age 50. Tinnitus sufferers hear continuous sounds in their heads that others don’t hear such as clicking, buzzing, humming, ringing or whistling. Tinnitus is often referred to by its slang name – ringing-in-the-ears. For some tinnitus sufferers, this persistent barrage of noise is more of a nuisance than an illness, but for many others it is a source of intense distress, bringing about symptoms such as anxiety, fatigue, sleep disorders, and depression.
Although there are technological treatments for tinnitus, such as hearing aids that mask and suppress the buzzing or ringing sounds, there is also a form of counseling known as Tinnitus Retraining Therapy. TRT can enable people suffering from tinnitus to use a combination of mechanisms to “retrain” their brains to reduce their perception of these sounds, eliminate their negative reactions to them, and eventually end their perception of them.
Discovered in the 1980s by neuroscientist Pawel Jastreboff, TRT challenges the assumptions of many hearing instrument specialists that tinnitus is a physical disorder due to ear damage that cannot be fixed. While damage to the ears – for example, exposure to loud noises for long periods of time – is often a cause of tinnitus, Jastreboff drew upon his training in neuroscience to propose an alternative behavioral neuro-physical model that explained the condition. Firmly believing that the condition could be fixed, he focused his efforts on developing behavior modification techniques.
According to Jastreboff’s model, tinnitus is not a disease or condition in itself, but a function of hyperacusis – the ability of some people to become aware of normal sounds generated by the auditory system that most people filter out or are unaware of. In other words, it’s not the sounds themselves that are a problem, just the distress and over reaction to hearing them. Only people who have been trained in how to administer the TRT training can lead the counseling sessions, which use precise and individually-tuned techniques of training and sound therapy to teach people to eliminate their over reactions to the sounds they don’t want to hear, and instead focus on sounds they do want to hear.
Over the years, TRT counselors have had success with helping people to overcome their conditioned negative responses to the sounds they hear, and thus eliminate the distress they feel at hearing them.