Treating Tinnitus with Mindfulness
When it comes to treating tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, patients and physicians alike are faced with a limited number of options. A new small study suggests that mindfulness can be a novel way to approach this life-altering condition.
Approximately 50 million Americans and millions more around the world live with a phantom noise that can range from a low hiss or ringing to a loud roar or squeal. Tinnitus can be present constantly or intermittently and can have a significant impact on people’s ability to hear, concentrate, or even participate in everyday activities.
The vast majority of people with tinnitus have what is known as subjective tinnitus. This is caused by problems with the inner, middle, or outer ear, the part of the brain that translates nerve signals as sounds, or the auditory nerves. In rare cases, tinnitus (objective tinnitus) is caused by an inner ear bone condition, muscle contractions, or a problem with the blood vessels.
Mindfulness for tinnitus
Seven patients (average age, 58 years) with chronic tinnitus participated in a pilot study at the University of California, San Francisco, Audiology Clinic to determine the effect of mindfulness-based therapy. During the treatment portion of the study, the participants completed an eight-week mindfulness stress reduction course that included weekly group sessions, meditation, reading, and a one-day retreat.
Once the intervention was completed, six of the patients continued practicing mindfulness and were evaluated 12 months later. Here’s what the authors found:
- Scores from self-reports on depression, anxiety, sleep habits, and social and occupational functioning declined from an average of 50.6 before mindfulness meditation practice to 41.7 after the treatment period and to 22.8 at 12 months
- This decline in scores indicated that the level of handicap associated with tinnitus had decreased from moderate to mild
- Participants said they felt an increase in acceptance, tolerance, and courage to live with tinnitus after treatment
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, the author of numerous books on mindfulness and the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction method, mindfulness can be defined as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.” Mindfulness is about experiencing each and every moment as it occurs, paying attention on purpose, and not thinking about the past or future. It’s about being present here and now.
Clinical psychologist Jennifer J. Gans, PsyD, one of the authors of the study, noted that the study participants “commented that tinnitus no longer seemed like a dreadful curse; it was just another sensation that could be annoying but was not insurmountable.” Even though this was a small pilot study, the results suggest that people suffering with tinnitus may want to consider mindfulness meditation as a treatment option.
Other treatments for tinnitus
One of the first things doctors should do when diagnosing people with tinnitus is to look for possible underlying causes. Ringing in the ears may be caused by excessive earwax, a blood vessel condition, or use of certain medications.
Among the current treatments for tinnitus are devices that help suppress the noise, such as white noise machines, hearing aids, and masking devices, which are worn in the ear like a hearing aid. Tinnitus retraining is another option, in which patients wear a device that provides tonal music to cover over the frequencies the individuals are experiencing.
Medications are typically not very helpful. People with severe tinnitus may be prescribed tricyclic antidepressants (e.g., amitriptyline, nortriptyline), but they can cause significant side effects. Similarly, alprazolam (e.g. Xanax) may help lessen symptoms, but the drug is habit forming and can cause nausea and drowsiness.
Some individuals choose cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on helping patients change or reduce their response to the sounds they hear.
Also read about pycnogenol and ringing in the ears
Gans JJ et al. Sustained benefit of mindfulness-based tinnitus stress reduction (MBTSR) in adults with chronic tinnitus: a pilot study. Mindfulness 2015 Apr 3.