Tinnitus is a disruptive, even disabling symptom, although it’s often hard to track down what it’s a symptom of. People with tinnitus may have difficulty working, and they can experience a significant mental health burden, which may include depression and even suicide attempts.
One of the most serious obstacles for tinnitus sufferers is that there are few treatments that can actually control the symptom. But now researchers are hoping that neurofeedback–consciously controlling your thoughts–will be able to reduce the impact of tinnitus.
One Model for Tinnitus
As we mentioned above, we’re still not sure what, exactly causes tinnitus or how it works. But one model is that it’s caused by the brain deciding to focus too much on certain areas of the brain, those responsible for interpreting sounds. As a result, the brain thinks it hears a sound, even if there’s nothing objectively there. A good metaphor would be the hum or buzz that comes out of speakers when you turn the volume up when there’s no music playing.
If this is really the cause of tinnitus, researchers reasoned, retraining the brain could be a powerful method to control the sound. Neurofeedback is an excellent approach to achieve this kind of effect. In neurofeedback, people look at a display that shows their brain activity, and then they consciously try to alter the pattern.
MRIs to Monitor Tinnitus
To see whether neurofeedback really could control tinnitus, researchers selected a pilot group of 18 people with tinnitus. These subjects were all given a functional MRI (fMRI), which monitors the current brain activity in specific areas of the brain. Then people were divided into two groups, the neurofeedback group and the control group.
The neurofeedback group was shown a display that reflected the fMRI readings from the portions of the brain involved in tinnitus. They were instructed in methods to control the brain activity levels in the hopes that this would also control tinnitus.
The control group was shown a recording of another subject’s fMRI readings, although they were also given the same control techniques to achieve control of brain level activity.
The study results showed that people who saw their actual brain activity levels were able to control their tinnitus by controlling brain activity. Those who didn’t see their own brain levels weren’t able to achieve the same level of control, even though they were using the same techniques.
The next stage, researchers say, is to develop a technique that allows people to see their brain levels effectively without being in an MRI machine.
Tinnitus Relief, No MRI Required
However, if you’re looking for tinnitus relief today, you may not have to wait for the new technology to be developed. Many people with tinnitus also have TMJ. In one recent study, 94% of tinnitus cases were associated with myofascial pain disorder (MPD), a subtype of TMJ.
Treating TMJ can reduce the intensity of muscle disturbance, and, for many people, provide relief from tinnitus.