Are you ready for a shocking statistic? It is believed that tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, affects over 45 million Americans, and is considered one of the most common health conditions in the United States. This symptom, not a disease in itself, can be more than just a nuisance or minor frustration. Talk to anyone who has the condition, and it’s easy to see just how much of an impact tinnitus can have on day-to-day life and interactions. Speak to the researchers now digging into the condition in search of a cure and you’ll understand that the impact may go even deeper than previously believed.
According to a recent study from the University of Illinois, the ringing or buzzing of tinnitus may actually affect how emotions are processed in the brain.
“We are trying to understand how the brain adapts to having tinnitus for a very long time,” said Fatima Husain, University of Illinois speech and hearing science and neuroscience professor who led the research team.
While prior to this study it was understood that individuals with tinnitus process emotional sounds differently, researchers are now seeing that there are differences in exactly where emotions are processed in the brain when tinnitus is a factor. In some individuals, the brain may adapt to compensate for the condition.
During the first part of the study, researchers studied the brain activity of those with and without tinnitus upon hearing “pleasant,” “neutral,” and “unpleasant” sounds. As predicted, brain activity differed between the two groups.
Researchers didn’t stop there, though. During the second part of the study, the brain activity of those with varying degrees of tinnitus was compared and what researchers found when comparing scans and analyzing participants’ initial intake survey responses was surprising. The final report concluded:
“Individuals with lower tinnitus distress may utilize frontal regions to better control their emotional response to affective sounds.”
In other words, individuals who reported less effect from their tinnitus during the initial surveys processed emotions more in the frontal lobe, an area less related to emotion and more tied to cognitive skills. Those more affected by their tinnitus continued to process emotions primarily in the amygdala. Researchers also pointed out that their findings suggested, “Physical activity may contribute to lower tinnitus severity and greater engagement of the frontal cortices.”
The study findings offer hope to those living with tinnitus, providing a great deal of insight. Researchers are confident that this insight can be used to help develop future treatments for those affected by the condition.
Currently, not all cases of tinnitus are treatable. The condition can be triggered by:
- Exposure to loud noises
- Age-related hearing loss
- Obstructions in the middle ear
- Head trauma
- Ototoxic drugs
- Underlying medical conditions such as high blood pressure
A physician or hearing health care provider can help determine the cause of the tinnitus and treatment options.
If you have been diagnosed with tinnitus or have buzzing or ringing in the ears, discuss options with a hearing healthcare provider. Many hearing aids offer masking features and new strategies such as meditation have been found to help lessen the effects of tinnitus.