Getting Relief From Tinnitus May Be Mind Over Matter

Daniel Monti, M.D.,
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While most people who have tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, do whatever they can to make the noise go away, new research suggests that acknowledging the sensation and learning to live with it can help decrease suffering.

Lead researcher Jennifer Gans, an assistant professor at the University of California at San Francisco says a technique called mindfulness-based tinnitus reduction helps people separate the ringing from the stress, anxiety and other negative emotions it often causes.

"Instead of pushing it away, it's dealing with what it is and experiencing it as a body sensation without the fear and depression that's creating the suffering," Gans said.

Mindfulness-based tinnitus reduction is modeled after mindfulness-based stress reduction, which previous studies have found to be effective in helping people deal with chronic pain and arthritis. The tinnitus version is specifically designed to deal with those symptoms.

In Gans' study, participants learn the mindfulness techniques over an eight-week period. So far, she said, it's been effective. One participant told Gans in an email that before learning about the technique, he relied on white noise generators to alleviate his symptoms.

"We had a power failure last night just before I was going to bed, which meant my white noise generators would not work. Before our study I would have gone into a complete panic thinking about going to bed without white noise," the participant wrote. "But because of our sit down meditation in which we breathe into the ringing, I knew I could handle silence in bed. Thank you, the study saved me from having a panic attack."

Experts in alternative medicine say the mindfulness techniques are becoming more popular remedies for a variety of ailments, including chronic pain, stress, itching, addiction and digestive disorders.

A report by researchers at Harvard Medical School released in May found that more than 6 million Americans are advised by traditional doctors to try meditation and other mind-body interventions. For sicker patients, these nonconventional approaches make them feel better physically and emotionally.

Focus Is on Relaxing Body and Mind

Hypnosis is one of the more common ways to use the mind to overcome the symptoms of a variety of illnesses. But experts say it doesn't work for everybody.

"Some people are more receptive to hypnosis or a hypnotic trance than others," said Janet Konefal, assistant dean for complementary and integrative medicine at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine.

A hypnotic trance changes people's brain waves and, in turn, can influence behavior, Konefal explained.

"'Even if somebody is phobic about needles, you can induce a trance," she said. The person inducing the trance will use positive statements about the experience and about the patient's capabilities to deal with the situation in front of them.

"You can visualize the immune system getting healthier, or imagine pain going away," said Konefal. The trance helps relax the mind and make it more open to suggestion.

Meditation is another technique people often use to cope with illnesses. Unlike hypnosis, which involves a trained professional talking a person through a trance, people who meditate focuses on themselves.

"It's more of an accepting state," said Konefal. In the case of tinnitus, she explained, meditation would help a person acknowledge the ringing noise and let it be so it goes into the background.

Music therapy is another method that's gaining popularity.

"It involves stimulating certain parts of the brain," Konefal explained. "Different kinds of music light up different parts of the brain. Mozart, for example, would be melodic and calming and help with stress reduction and pain."

Other mind-body interventions include biofeedback, deep breathing, tai chi, guided imagery, relaxation, prayer and writing in a journal. These are all techniques that help relieve stress and bring about healing.

"Most people find that these are skills," said Dr. Lawrence Taw, assistant clinical professor at the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine, part of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "They require practice, and people feel that when they practice, they can apply these skills on their own when they experience warning signs."

The purpose of these mind-body therapies is to help the body to relax.

"These stress management techniques can shut off the stress response and thus minimize the negative effects on the body that come with it," Taw said.

Experts say more and more people are embracing these and other alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, massage and herbal medicines.

"There are many reasons they are becoming more popular," Taw said. "People find they can't tolerate medication or they tried conventional treatments and they didn't help, or they may have introduced another problem."

Many people consider nontraditional therapies safer and more effective as well.

Gans, who led the study on using a mind-based strategies to help with tinnitus, said although data are preliminary, numerous participants have found relief from a condition that is difficult to treat.

"Doctors don't always know what causes it, and there's no cure for it," she said. "With this intervention, people can learn to notice the noise and let go of it and end their suffering."