Tinnitus and the brain

By Rafaele Joudry

Tinnitus is the condition where a phantom noise is heard inside the head with no external cause. The noise can be anything form ringing to buzzing, roaring, whistling, popping or clanging. Ringing is the most common. The sound may come on gradually or suddenly and it may be intermittent or constant.
Tinnitus is the name of the condition or symptom, so while there may be many causes, if you have noise in your head, it is called tinnitus, just as a pain in your head is called a headache, regardless of the cause.

For many years tinnitus was considered untreatable and the advice given by doctors and tinnitus associations was simply “you will have to learn to live with it.”

However, many pioneering researchers have been quietly working on this problem so it is no longer necessary to take a fatalistic attitude. Several treatments are now available which may help different individuals.

Though tinnitus is generally caused by damage to the ear, either through noise exposure, injury, illness or drug side effects, this article focuses on the more complex question of how the brain is involved.

One possible cause of tinnitus is an acoustic neuroma, a benign tumour on the auditory nerve. A specialist will perform tests to eliminate this possibility and if an acoustic neuroma is present, will monitor the tumour and may recommend surgery. However, this condition is relatively rare and there are many other possible causes of tinnitus.

The limbic system
Respected Sydney ENT, Professor Gibson, explains the role of the limbic system in tinnitus. The limbic system is the part of the brain that generates primitive, instinctive emotions, those ones which occur before reasoned thinking even has a chance to start.

Whilst tinnitus is usually generated first by noise damage, it then travels to the limbic system, which acts as a big amplifier. Most international tinnitus experts are now focusing on the limbic system as a major player in the tinnitus cycle.

We can understand the role of the limbic system better by looking at a couple of examples. When an animal gets scared its ears pop up and this actually increases its level of hearing because of the extra amplification given by the brain. In humans this is the mechanism that makes us “spooky.” Imagine you are walking along through a graveyard and somebody, a friend, goes “Boo” and you clutch your skin. It’s not because your ears are working better, it’s because your brain amplifies the sound. The problem, as Professor Gibson explains, is that the tinnitus will be more or less amplified by activity in the limbic system, so depending on how focused you are on that sound, the sound will become louder or softer. If you’re threatened by the sound then the brain makes it louder. Therefore those who are alarmed or distressed by their tinnitus will find that it becomes worse.

Counselling and cognitive retraining helps you to re-evaluate the tinnitus as an unimportant sound. The limbic system, that part of the brain concerned with emotion and learning, can then be calmed, and the perpetual sound may decrease or even disappear. Meditation or other forms of mental training such as bio feedback, tai chi or chi gung can achieve similar effects, as can calming activities such as Sound Therapy or a relaxing holiday.

Chronic pain syndrome
Chiropractic neurologist Ted Carrick has created a new and exciting field of treatment, sensory therapy, which stays away from drugs or surgery. He treats neurological disorders through non invasive intervention using the sensory pathways, kinaesthetic, auditory, visual and vestibular (balance). Along with chronic pain specialists, he asks the question, “why does the pain continue long after the injury occurred?”

The answer seems to lie in the fact that all our body parts are constantly sending signals to the brain along our nerve pathways. However, when a body part, say a foot, is injured, that foot stops sending those messages that were letting the brain know, “yes, I’m here, I have five toes, I’m bearing weight, I’m OK” etc. When those familiar messages cease, the brain assumes the foot has been injured or there is something wrong, so it creates another signal, a distress signal, called “pain.” In the healing process, if the foot does not regain full function, if there is scarring, or nerves have been severed, or there is damage that doesn’t heal, the normal signals never resume, so it is possible that the pain signal will continue on and on. Experts now think that the same thing may be happening with tinnitus. Perhaps part of the ear is damaged, say by industrial deafness, so a sound signal is missing in certain frequencies. The brain has to compensate for that lack of signal, so replaces it with tinnitus.

Chronic tinnitus
There is a parallel between chronic tinnitus and chronic pain. One simple form of sensory therapy, which has been found helpful for both chronic pain and tinnitus, is Sound Therapy. Sound is a direct and easy way to stimulate the brain. A French ENT, Dr Tomatis, used highly filtered classical music with augmented high frequencies to produce global brain reactivation. It has been observed that this regular stimulation which reconnects many parts of the brain, seems to provide the necessary signal so the brain can let go of its repetitive chronic pain or tinnitus signal. Those with chronic pain from old injuries or phantom pain from amputation have achieved complete relief through Sound Therapy, as have those with long term chronic tinnitus.

Hyperactive brain cells
Eric Jordan, a hearing specialist in the UK, performed trials with Sound Therapy to measure its effect on tinnitus. After testing numerous patients over a two year period he concluded that 90% of them gained relief from Sound Therapy. He attributed this success primarily to the fact that Sound Therapy calmed hyperactive brain cells, also helping to relieve stress, anxiety and depression. He found that it was much more effective than tinnitus maskers, a technique commonly offered by audiologists where an external sound distracts the attention away form the internal tinnitus.

Sound Therapy
Several researchers have developed ways of treating the ears with sound. The first method was the tinnitus masker which was developed by a doctor who had tinnitus himself. He noticed that when he was standing beside a fountain he could not hear his tinnitus and this gave him a sense of relief. He then developed a little device that could be worn in the ear to develop a sound that would match and drown out the tinnitus. This provided temporary relief, but only while the device was being worn.

A more effective treatment was developed accidentally by Dr Alfred Tomatis, the inventor of Sound Therapy. His method, intended originally to help singers sing better, stimulates the ear with a range of frequencies within the complex structure of classical music. Because this music is stimulating and pleasant for the brain, it activates many different parts of the brain simultaneously.

The limbic system is involved as the emotions are engaged by the music, the sensory pathways are activated due to the extra stimulation of the high frequencies. The ear is connected via the cranial nerves to all the other senses and many internal organs including the heart and the digestive system. Therefore stimulating the ear with music engages numerous brain centres in a harmonised way. The entire nervous system is both calmed and enlivened, creating a better environment in which the body can heal from a troubling, stress related condition like tinnitus.

Ordinary music would not achieve this to the same extent. It is the specific filtering applied by Dr Tomatis to the sound that brings about a new gymnastic response of the ear, opening sensory pathways and activating brain systems that may have fallen into limited usage. Therefore the therapy helps to interrupt patterns of chronic worry, obsessive compulsive disorder, agoraphobia, insomnia and depression. All these conditions are related to inadequate performance of certain sensory pathways or brain systems, and may sometimes be linked to tinnitus as well.

Sound Therapy can be used as a portable system at home, making it affordable and convenient. The full details on how the program was developed and can be used to treat tinnitus are available in the book Triumph Over Tinnitus, by the Australian author and educator, Rafaele Joudry. A recovery handbook for tinnitus sufferers, Triumph Over Tinnitus documents many case histories and delves in to a variety of available treatments for tinnitus.

The book and Sound Therapy programs are available through from Sound Therapy International, Phone: 1300 55 77 96 or contact us via this website.

Posted in Articles.

Leave a Reply