What is sound therapy?
Patients with tinnitus often find that their tinnitus symptoms are less bearable when in a quiet environment and that other, external sounds make the internal sounds produced by tinnitus less noticeable.
As discussed in my article about tinnitus, sound therapy is an approach used to help treat tinnitus symptoms. It focuses on utilizing external noises to mask the internal sounds of tinnitus with the hopes of reducing its burden on patients.
How does sound therapy work?
There are four general ways sound therapy works:
- Masking exposes patients to loud enough, external noises. These noises are produced at a high enough volume that they cover the sounds of tinnitus (either partially or completely)
- Distraction uses external sounds to distract patients and divert their attention from the sounds of tinnitus
- Habituation trains the patient’s brain to re-classify tinnitus sounds as insignificant and something they can ignore
- Neuromodulation uses specially produced sounds that are known to reduce hyperactivity in the brain that is thought to be responsible for causing tinnitus
Types of sound therapy
Due to the variety of ways sound therapy can work, there are many types of sound therapy products available to help patients with their symptoms.
Environmental sounds can include cars and traffic, a busy street, a busy office, wind in the trees, waves crashing, or even a fan or ticking clock. Environmental sound provides sound therapy through masking and also distraction.
Sound therapy with environmental sound can be conducted naturally, for example, leaving by leaving a window open at night. It can also be conducted with the use of sound machines or playing environmental/nature soundtracks through headphones or speakers.
TV, radio, CDs, mp3 players, speakers, headphones
These devices produce external noise in the form of talking, music, or ambient or environmental/nature soundtracks. Like environmental sound, this approach to sound therapy is through masking and distraction.
Sound machines are devices that are especially made to produce external sounds for sound therapy. They can be set to play white noise, pink noise, nature sounds, or other ambient, subtle sounds. Also, they can play these sounds on timers or even on an endless loop.
Sound machines provide sound therapy through masking and distraction and may also help with relaxation. It is important to note that this approach is generally only effective during or immediately after use.
This type of sound therapy includes medical-grade devices designed to produce customized sounds for patients with tinnitus. Notched-music uses algorithmically modified sounds that features specific frequencies and tones (often at a level that the listener cannot notice) to mask tinnitus sounds.
Unlike standard sound machines, these devices are generally worn during therapy sessions or at specific times of need (eg., before bed or when waking up). They also have been shown to provide continued benefit even after use.
Furthermore, unlike standard sound machines, notched-music devices may also provide sound therapy via neuromodulation. Over time, they may help patients naturally tune out tinnitus sounds.
Hearing aids can help patients hear external noises better, which can help to mask the internal sounds they hear as a result of tinnitus. According to a 2007 survey conducted by hearing care professionals, approximately 60% of tinnitus patients experienced at least some relief when using hearing aids, and about 22% of patients experienced significant relief.
Points to consider when choosing a sound therapy device
Of these sound therapy options, hearing aids and medical-grade notched-music devices can be the most expensive (and are often not covered by health insurance).
It is also important for patients to consider their lifestyle and in what situations they need relief from tinnitus symptoms the most. Sound machines can be ideal for relieving symptoms during sleep (or falling asleep or waking up) or perhaps if the patient stays at home in a quiet environment during the day. Headphones or wearable speakers are also good for daytime home use and can also be suitable for tinnitus masking in an office setting or while on-the-go.
Sound sensitivity is another point to consider, as some patients may be more sensitive to certain sounds, and therefore, sound amplifying devices would likely not be ideal.
- American Tinnitus Association. Sound Therapies. https://www.ata.org/managing-your-tinnitus/treatment-options/sound-therapies. Accessed January 2019.
- Hobson J, Chisholm E, Refaie A. Sound therapy (masking) in the management of tinnitus in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012;CD006371.
- British Tinnitus Association. Sound therapy (sound enrichment). https://www.tinnitus.org.uk/sound-therapy. Accessed January 2019.
- National Institute of Health: National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). Tinnitus. Updated March 6, 2017. Accessed January 2019.
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