Do you have hearing loss and tinnitus? These coping strategies can help
Every day, millions of people around the world are tortured by noises that no one else can hear.
Some people, like me, hear a high-pitched ringing sound. Others hear something else entirely, from whooshing to static, chirps, beeps, roaring, or one of many other noises.
Despite a lack of awareness in the general public, tinnitus (the medical term for ringing in the ears) is a major health problem affecting close to 10-15% of the population by most estimates.
Not everyone sufferers from the ringing in their ears, but of the people who do, very few have it worse than those with hearing loss.
More: Tinnitus and hearing loss: What's the connection?
Even with normal hearing, tinnitus can severely disrupt your quality of life. But when hearing loss is also part of the equation, it can be utterly devastating, because many of the traditional coping tools involving sound don't work as well.
Fortunately, lasting relief through habituation is still possible for people with hearing loss. And there are a lot of things you can do to find some relief in the moment, even when drowning out the sound of your tinnitus with masking/background noise isn’t an option.
So today, I’d like to offer a few helpful and effective coping strategies for tinnitus sufferers that work well with hearing loss.
See a hearing care specialist
One of the first hearing healthcare specialists most tinnitus patients will see is an audiologist. It’s a critical early step in the tinnitus treatment process for a few important reasons.
First, if you are experiencing sudden sensorineural hearing loss (also known as sudden deafness) and tinnitus at the same time, an audiologist may be able to restore some or all of your hearing through one of several possible interventions. This can often lead to a direct improvement of tinnitus.
Audiologists can also administer a test called an audiogram to find out the extent and nature of your hearing loss. Even when you think your hearing isn’t affected, it’s always a good idea to be tested, because hearing loss is a common cause of tinnitus.
Hearing aids can help in two ways
When hearing loss is identified, the audiologist can fit you for hearing aids. Hearing aids for tinnitus can be very helpful.
Not only will this help to restore the frequency range you’ve lost but hearing aids have been repeatedly shown to help tinnitus sufferers to better cope.
First, simply restoring a patient’s hearing with hearing aids can directly improve their tinnitus. But even if it doesn’t lower the tinnitus volume, hearing aids can still help a sufferer to cope by amplifying other sounds that the patient wants to hear. By turning up the volume of your surroundings, you are no longer forced to only hear your tinnitus. And it reopens the door to using sound as a coping tool.
Second, many modern hearing aids come with tinnitus masking features that can play amplified tones, white noise, music, or nature sounds directly into the ear to help drown out a person’s tinnitus. An audiologist can run a series of tests to figure out the pitch and intensity of your tinnitus, and program your hearing aid accordingly. Just be mindful of how you use color noises (white, pink, brown noise, etc), in some cases it's not recommended for tinnitus.
This offers hearing loss patients the ability to use masking again, which can lower the perceived volume of their tinnitus. And when it seems quieter, it’s less bothersome and the brain can slowly learn to tune it out.
Physical relaxation techniques
When you’re trying to cope with tinnitus and hearing loss at the same time, relaxation techniques are a big piece of the puzzle.
During bad spikes or other difficult tinnitus moments, you probably won't be able to change the volume, but you can always make yourself more relaxed and more comfortable.
One of the best things you can do is relax yourself physically. Stress often finds its way into our bodies as aches, tightness, and pain for the simple reason that adrenaline and other stress hormones cause muscle tension.
You can reduce anxiety and calm yourself mentally by calming yourself physically. The mind-body connection is very real, it’s just only obvious in certain situations.
For example, if you’ve ever had a professional massage, you have experienced it in action. If the mind-body connection wasn’t real, you would not feel mentally relaxed after a great massage. And yet most people feel incredible, both mentally and physically, after a massage.
The more you can do to relax yourself physically, the calmer you will feel and the better you will be able to cope with tinnitus. Here are few ideas to get you started:
Take a hot bath (or get in a hot tub)
Hot water relieves muscle tension, it’s as simple as that. Saunas and steam rooms work well too. Bonus points if you add in a secondary distraction, like lighting a candle with a calming scent, reading a good book, or both.
Give yourself a massage
Professional massages are a fantastic way to reduce stress and cope with tinnitus, but they are expensive and not something you can do at the drop of a hat. Instead, you can practice trigger point massage on yourself (also known as myofascial release) with a lacrosse ball or foam roller. Here are a few helpful links to get you started:
Progressive muscle relaxation
This simple exercise can release tension from every muscle in your body. There are several variations you can do, but the easiest way to practice this is to first lie down comfortably and take a few deep breaths. With each exhale, let your whole body go limp, releasing as much tension as you can. Next, you will work your way through your body tensing muscle groups one at a time for 4-10 seconds (use light to medium tension here – you don’t want your muscles to cramp), followed immediately by relaxing the muscle group as much as possible for 10-20 seconds. Start with your feet and toes, then work your way through your legs, butt, stomach and lower back, chest and upper back, shoulders and arms, hands and fingers, neck and throat, and then finally your face and head.
4-7-8 breathing exercise
Breathing techniques are an effective way to quickly reduce anxiety and stress in variety of difficult situations. There are many to choose from, but when it comes to coping with tinnitus, a few attributes are critically important: it needs to be something you can practice quickly, anywhere, any time, and it has to work immediately.
There are several that meet these criteria, but my personal favorite is the 4-7-8 breathing technique popularized by a man I find fascinating, Dr. Andrew Weil.
If you aren’t familiar with Dr. Weil, he has earned celebrity status in the U.S. as a physician, speaker, author, and proponent of alternative health. He is best known for his work in the field of integrative and holistic medicine.
The 4-7-8 breathing technique can be practiced anywhere, takes only 60-90 seconds, and is very effective at triggering a powerful relaxation response, especially after you’ve practiced it a few times.
Here is the technique, according to DrWeil.com:
“Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.
Find and remove triggers
One of the biggest challenges for most tinnitus patients is dealing with difficult spikes. Tinnitus rarely remains constant. When it spikes in volume or intensity, or changes in quality, pitch or tone, it can suddenly become much more difficult to cope, especially for people with hearing loss.
It doesn’t help that there are a large number of possible triggers – specific lifestyle, dietary, and environmental factors that can exacerbate tinnitus – that vary greatly from person to person.
It’s also very hard to identify the things that trigger your tinnitus because it doesn’t always happen immediately, and there are too many variables to consider when trying to make sense of it all. For example, if something you eat for breakfast spikes your tinnitus six hours later in the afternoon, you aren’t going to just leap to that conclusion. Too many other things happened in the interim.
But you can start to find these connections by journaling and keeping track of your diet, lifestyle, and environment in an organized way. Some people, for example, find caffeine to be a tinnitus trigger, while others need to limit salt intake.
This way you can compare difficult days and moments to look for patterns. And when you identify your own unique triggers, you can make an effort to avoid the specific things that spike your tinnitus.
I have a free printable tinnitus trigger worksheet that you can download here.
Keep in mind, this is a preventative strategy, as opposed to the other techniques listed above which are designed to help you cope after a difficult moment has occurred. But it’s still important because the more triggers you can identify and remove, the fewer spikes you will likely experience, and the easier it is to manage.
What are your coping techniques?
Hearing loss makes an already challenging health problem like tinnitus much more difficult to endure. But it’s not the life sentence it might seem like at first. Even in the worst cases of suffering, there is still so much hope and the real possibility of relief.
These suggestions are not meant to be an exhaustive exploration of coping tools for hearing loss patients with tinnitus. But hopefully it’s enough to get started, and many of these techniques have benefited me personally in my own journey to find relief from the ringing in my ears.
When you’re suffering from tinnitus, especially with hearing loss, you need to use every helpful tool, technique, and strategy that you can to find the relief you deserve.
Know of any other good coping strategies for tinnitus and hearing loss? Leave a comment below.
Tackling Tinnitus: Read more of Glenn Schweitzer's columns
Have questions? Want to connect? You can contact me at my blog, RewiringTinnitus.com.