Will OTC hearing aids help with tinnitus?
Experts say it's possible but professional help is recommended
Tinnitus can be hard to live with. The ringing, hissing, and buzzing sounds caused by this condition can be loud, incessant, and difficult to ignore. For many people, tinnitus adversely affects quality of life by hampering communication, disrupting sleep, and causing isolation and anxiety.
Hearing loss and tinnitus facts
Hearing loss and tinnitus are strong linked. About 90% of people with tinnitus also have hearing loss, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America. While not curable, hearing loss is correctable with the use of properly fitted hearing aids.
If you have tinnitus, with or without hearing loss, you’re far from alone. A systematic review published in JAMA Neurology found that approximately 740 million adults worldwide have this condition. Of that number, 120 million categorize their ear-ringing as a major life issue or problem.
There is no cure for tinnitus. However, professionally fitted hearing aids for tinnitus can provide immense relief. Understanding the root cause of your condition, as well as what OTC hearing aids can and can’t do, is immensely important when deciding which type of hearing aids to try.
Hearing loss, OTC hearing aids and tinnitus
Hearing loss reduces the amount of external sound that reaches the brain. This changes the brain’s ability to process auditory stimulation. Researchers theorize that "the brain is expecting to get more input from the ears than it actually does, so it creates a phantom sound to occupy itself, which we perceive as tinnitus,” explains audiologist Kathleen Wallace, AuD.
Hearing aids, including over-the-counter types, increase the brain’s access to auditory stimulation and environmental sounds. This reduces the brain’s need to fill in the silence with sounds it creates.
"Instead of it being tinnitus vs. silence, hearing aids can make tinnitus more bearable for some people by making it just another sound within one's soundscape," Dr. Wallace says.
Over-the-counter hearing aids are meant for people over 18 who have self-perceived, mild to moderate hearing loss. They’re not specifically targeted toward tinnitus relief. If your hearing loss is in the mild to moderate range, OTC hearing aids may be beneficial for you. It can, however, be hard to self-assess how severe your hearing loss actually is.
“One of the most common things I see in my practice is an underestimate of the degree of hearing loss that has developed. For most people, hearing loss is a gradual occurrence. Think about weight changes – 1 or 2 lbs. of weight gain or loss are not easily appreciated, but at 10 lbs. we start to feel differently. It’s the same with hearing loss," says otolaryngologist Francisca Yao, M.D. of ENT and Allergy Associates in Brooklyn. "I think that the concept of perceived mild to moderate hearing loss may take on different meanings to different people."
When OTC hearing aids may not be a good fit
People of any age can have tinnitus, with or without hearing loss. As with hearing loss, exposure to loud music or noise can often be at fault. Hearing loss, the leading cause of tinnitus, does however become more common as people get older, and both can increase in severity, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD).
About 25% of adults aged 65 to 74 have disabling hearing loss. In people older than 75, about 50% have severe or profound hearing loss after age 75. For people with this degree of hearing loss, over-the-counter hearing aids may not provide tinnitus relief, or improve hearing significantly.
People who purchase OTC hearing aids may become frustrated if their level of hearing loss isn’t appropriate for the product they chose, Dr. Yao notes.
If you have one-sided tinnitus, tinnitus that's lasted longer than six months, or combined hearing loss and tinnitus, a medical and audiological examination is a smart first step, she says. Your provider can then help you determine if you'd be a good candidate for OTC hearing aids.
OTC hearing aids are relatively new. There are not, as of yet, any established guidelines for people with tinnitus. Not everyone with tinnitus experiences relief via hearing aids, "so I wouldn’t recommend that people invest in these products with the primary goal of treating tinnitus,” adds Dr. Yao.
She also cautions that medical reasons other than hearing loss should be ruled out before OTC hearing aids are bought. Tinnitus can have many underlying causes, including Meniere’s disease, ototoxic medications, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders, and blood vessel disorders.
“While it’s certainly possible that over-the-counter hearing aids can help with tinnitus, I'd be more curious about getting to the root cause if someone does not [have] hearing loss," says Dr. Wallace.
Are OTC hearing aids a good fit for you?
Tinnitus coupled with hearing loss can cause depression and isolation. If cost or logistical hurdles have been stopping you from getting support, OTC hearing aids may be a great option or first step.
If possible, seeing a hearing or medical professional for an audiological exam before you buy hearing aids will be highly beneficial. In many instances, something minor, such as an earwax clog, may be causing tinnitus. Finding this out can alleviate symptoms without the use of hearing aids.
You may also be taking a medication that causes tinnitus as a side effect. Going over your medication list with a healthcare provider may also provide you with options, as well as relief.
Not for people with severe or profound hearing loss
If your hearing loss is severe or profound, OTC hearing aids probably won’t be enough to effectively enhance your hearing ability or provide relief from tinnitus. For you, seeing a professional is very important and can be life-changing.
If you do decide to try OTC hearing aids, look for a model that will fit the size and shape of your ear. Like prescription hearing aids, OTC hearing aids vary by style and manufacturer. Many come in a one-size-fits-all format. Others come with a selection of sleeves or domes that give you sizing options.
Hearing aids that don’t fit well are often discarded and not used, so this is key.
Dr. Wallace and Dr. Yao both advise that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to tinnitus management. If you do decide to use OTC hearing aids, be prepared to move on to another option if they don’t provide you with the level of relief you’re looking for.
There are many ways to address tinnitus. Despite how it might feel to you today, you don’t have to live with this condition.