Tinnitus is widespread in the U.S. with approximately 50 million sufferers above age 50. Tinnitus sufferers hear continuous sounds in their heads that others cannot hear such as clicking, buzzing, humming, ringing or whistling. Tinnitus is often known by its slang name – ringing-in-the-ears. For some tinnitus sufferers, this constant onslaught of noise is more of a nuisance than a disorder, but for many others it’s a source of serious 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. Using a combination of mechanisms, TRT “retrains” tinnitus sufferers and gives them the ability to reduce their perceptions of the noises they hear, so they no longer react to the sounds negatively, and thus eventually cease being bothered by them.
Tinnitus Retraining Therapy was discovered in the 1980s by an Austrian neuroscientist named Pawel Jastreboff, and it is radical in the sense that it disputes the assumption that tinnitus is a disorder caused by physical damage that cannot be healed. Jastreboff has proposed an alternate model for tinnitus based on his background in behavioral neuroscience. This allowed him to disregard previous notions that the condition couldn’t be fixed, and focus his attention on developing behavioral modification techniques that could, indeed, fix it.
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 his theory, it is not the buzzing sounds themselves that are a problem, and the distress they cause some people is due to an over reaction to the sounds. 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.
TRT counselors have had remarkable success over the years in enabling patients to overcome their conditioned negative responses to tinnitus, thus enabling them to eliminate the distress that they feel.