Are Hearing Aids a Cure for Tinnitus?
If you’re reading this, you probably have tinnitus and want to know, will hearing aids help your tinnitus? There’s a strong correlation between hearing loss and tinnitus. Most people who have tinnitus also have some degree of hearing loss. But even people with tinnitus can have a test result of normal hearing. So let’s talk about how hearing aids can be used to help treat tinnitus for those who have a hearing loss, and potentially even those who have a test result of normal hearing.
First, I will introduce the best research for the treatment for tinnitus, and what role hearing aids have in that treatment. Second, I’ll explain the relationship between tinnitus and hearing aids, and specifically how hearing aids may help. Third, we’ll discuss what kinds of hearing aids are best for tinnitus.
So stick around till the end of this article, because you’ll gain in-depth knowledge about what most people miss and how to use hearing aids for tinnitus.
Anatomy and Physiology of Tinnitus
Let’s start with a quick intro to the anatomy of the hearing system. We have the ear canal which leads to the eardrum. Beyond the eardrum is an air-filled space containing the tiniest bones in the body. These bones help amplify and transmit the sound on to the hearing organ, or cochlea. Typically we have damage to the cochlea resulting in hearing loss, and that creates a chain reaction up to the auditory center of the brain where the tinnitus is formed.
We’re going to be talking a lot about hearing loss in this article. I want to make sure that you’ve gotten a hearing test. If you’re looking to get hearing aids, you will need a hearing test first, so I do encourage you to get one. Here is an easy online hearing test to get started.
Treatment of Tinnitus (Medical Research Study)
The most recent systematic review of tinnitus treatment options was completed in 2017. The research explains how hearing aids can be used for tinnitus treatment. One of these studies made a note that tinnitus relief can be the primary or secondary reason that someone chooses to get a hearing aid. If someone’s getting a hearing aid for hearing loss, then the secondary benefit might be tinnitus relief. If someone’s getting the hearing aid for tinnitus relief, then the secondary benefit may be improved hearing of speech.
A second study from this review found that the most effective tinnitus treatments are hearing aids, sound enrichment, and tinnitus retraining therapy.
A third study found that hearing aids can provide three benefits. The first is masking the tinnitus. The second is reducing the amount of stress from untreated hearing loss. When we can hear more of our environment, we’re less stressed and we spend less mental energy trying to put the puzzle around us back together. The third benefit is that hearing aids provide a sound-rich environment, which is commonly known to help people find tinnitus relief.
An additional study also found that the increase in auditory stimulation that hearing aids can provide was important, and that hearing aids are valuable tools for sound therapy. Another important study was done on normal hearing individuals. Again, this means someone who gets a hearing test and is given a result of normal hearing. But of course, you know it’s not normal, otherwise you wouldn’t be hearing tinnitus.
In one research study, there were two groups. One group wore open-fit hearing aids with amplification. The other group wore ear-level noise generators, which looked the same, but had no amplification. Both groups showed similar benefit from having sound in their ears, or in other words, a more sound-rich environment. It did not matter whether the sound was picked up from the environment and made louder (hearing aids) or whether the device itself created the sound (noise generators). Both were beneficial.
This research reinforces the need to have a therapist or a guide, a professional who can treat your tinnitus. They will of course make sure the hearing aids are working properly. But the professional will primarily focus on the psychological process: getting you out of the fight or flight response and relaxing and grounding the nervous system. That’s not easy work. But from my perspective, that’s a big gap that most of the medical field is missing.
The big-picture takeaway here is that when it comes to tinnitus and hearing aids, increased sound stimulation via hearing aids typically leads to tinnitus relief for most individuals. Even if you have only a mild hearing loss, hearing aids are still superior to just wearing maskers or playing ear-level soothing sounds through your phone, headphones, etc.
How Hearing Aids Can Help Tinnitus
It’s commonly known that hearing aids are the best treatment for hearing loss. Let’s talk about exactly how hearing aids can help tinnitus. First, they are a convenient way to have sound therapy at all hours of the day. I’m working with an individual right now, and they realized that their AirPods, the wireless Bluetooth headphones they were using for sound therapy, weren’t functional. The AirPods had a shorter battery life, they were bigger and noticeable to people around them. Hearing aids were superior in terms of battery life and the amount of time they could use it during the day.
Hearing aids provide a sound-rich environment which helps tinnitus. Using sound therapy can help immediately. For the first year, I would recommend having a sound-rich, stimulating environment that can help you rewire the pathways in your brain and reduce the auditory symptom of tinnitus. I encourage anyone who’s working with me in my group coaching program or in private therapy to have a sound-rich environment. If they have a hearing loss, it is particularly important to use well-fit hearing aids.
A lot of people who have tinnitus, especially if it was a sudden onset or it’s started fairly recently, have a feeling of intrusiveness. You can’t get rid of it. It’s demanding, it’s very much in your face. A good way to balance that intrusiveness is by using a hearing aid.
The hearing aid can be connected to your smartphone through Bluetooth. You have access to a large collection of sound therapy from the smartphone itself. You can look through the different options for tinnitus management smartphone apps. Through your phone, you can control the volume of the sound therapy. Even if your tinnitus fluctuates, and it spikes throughout the day or week, you can have a calm, simple way to adjust your soothing sounds. That way, you’re always able to feel somewhat in control over how you respond to your tinnitus and how you use sound therapy.
What Kind of Hearing Aids Are Best for Tinnitus?
Finally, let’s talk about what kind of hearing aids are best for tinnitus. I would highly recommend what are called “receiver-in-canal” style hearing aids, because these are considered the least visible style and typically the best for a high-pitch hearing loss. High-pitch is the type of hearing loss that most people have. Most people with tinnitus have hearing loss, and the tinnitus is also high-pitch.
The receiver-in-canal hearing device has a more natural sound quality. When you’re wearing it throughout the day, it will feel as if almost nothing is there, and your voice will have the same natural sound as always. That’s because there’s a rubber tip that goes into the ear, and it lets some of the natural sound come through.
Additionally, you want to make sure that if possible, your hearing aids can connect to your smartphone. Android or Apple, they all work with modern hearing aids and will connect via Bluetooth. That means that you can play your most relaxing sounds, sounds that ground your system and calm you down. For me personally, that’s the sound of the ocean, or the sound of birds and the forest. Whatever kind of sounds you want to play, you can do it by streaming them from your smartphone via Bluetooth from YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, etc.
Proper sound therapy includes the right style of hearing aid, Bluetooth connectivity, and volume control–that’s really the best you can do in terms of hearing aids for tinnitus.
So what are your thoughts on tinnitus and hearing aids? Do you plan to get hearing aids that go over the ear, or do you already have them? Are you interested in hearing aids that go completely inside the ear canal?
To learn what may help you manage your tinnitus, please download our free 10-page e-book, The Ultimate Guide To Tinnitus Relief.
Dr. Ben Thompson is an audiologist and tinnitus expert. Dr. Thompson is the founder of PureTinnitus.com. He completed his residency at University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) and is a past board member of the California Academy of Audiology. Via telehealth, Dr. Thompson provides services to patients with hearing loss and tinnitus.