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Experts say ringing in the ears from tinnitus can be a symptom of certain health conditions. damircudic/Getty Images
  • A new app, MindEar, provides relief to people with tinnitus by leveraging cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, meditation, and sound therapy.
  • An initial clinical trial showed that nearly two-thirds of users saw an improvement after 16 weeks.
  • Tinnitus is not a condition, but a symptom, characterized by the perception of ringing or noise when none is present.
  • Underlying causes can include stress but also more serious issues.

Tinnitus, a common symptom in which the brain perceives sound even in quiet environments, affects about 10 percent of adults in the United States.

While most cases are mild, some people can experience debilitating symptoms that can significantly diminish their quality of life.

Its underlying causes are multifaceted, ranging from general ear conditions to stress to head injuries, and that can make it tricky for doctors to treat.

A team of researchers has developed a smartphone app, known as MindEar, that could help provide relief to those with tinnitus. The app is available now and researchers say an early clinical trial has shown promise in helping people overcome their symptoms.

“It’s a big challenge to provide help to the millions of people who are currently struggling,” Dr. Fabrice Bardy, an audiologist at Waipapa Taumata Rau at the University of Auckland in New Zealand as well as the lead author of the trial and co-founder of the app, told Medical News Today.

“What is really encouraging, I think, is finding ways to leverage technology to allow people who are experiencing distressing tinnitus to get access to help,” he said.

Rebecca Lewis, an audiologist and audiology director of the Adult & Pediatric Cochlear Implant Program at Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California who was not involved in the study, told Medical News Today that tinnitus isn’t actually a condition on its own, but a symptom of an underlying condition such as hearing loss or other potential health issues.

“Tinnitus can have a variety of causes, but most often is associated with some degree of hearing loss,” she explained. “It’s an increase in spontaneous nerve activity in the absence of sound. In cases of hearing loss, the brain fills in the gaps where hearing loss is present with spontaneous neural activity. Instead of hearing silence, you hear the ringing sound.”

Because tinnitus is a symptom and not a condition, experts say it can be a challenge for physicians to root out the condition that’s causing it. That said, experts say it’s well understood that exposure to loud noises can exacerbate these symptoms.

“Exposure to loud sound levels such as machinery, explosions, or long concerts can lead to tinnitus,” Lewis said. “In fact, these noise exposures can lead to a temporary shift in hearing accompanied by tinnitus, which usually resolves after 16 to 18 hours. These are not benign events as they can cause long-term damage to the cells of the inner ear, the cochlea.”

Lewis explained that the ear ringing associated with tinnitus can also be caused by a host of other factors, including earwax buildup, ear infection, fluid buildup, head injury, or as a side effect of various medications.

More serious conditions, such as blood vessel disorders, joint disorders, and tumors, can also create conditions that cause a ringing sensation.

“Bilateral tinnitus is very common and should not be a cause of significant worry or stress,” Lewis said. “However, if the tinnitus persists, begins suddenly, or increases in severity, an evaluation by a hearing healthcare provider is strongly advised.”

While some cases of tinnitus can be explained by a treatable condition, others are more difficult to assess. Factors such as caffeine consumption, lack of sleep, and simply general stress can also contribute.

For these cases, physicians often recommend therapy to people with tinnitus, since stress and tinnitus have a way of feeding off each other.

“If you experience a high level of stress, it can be a trigger to cause tinnitus, but conversely, tinnitus can also cause stress,” said Bardy. “It’s a bidirectional effect.”

Bardy explained that MindEar leverages chatbot technology to act as a virtual cognitive behavioral therapist for people with tinnitus. The app also utilizes sound therapy along with mindfulness and meditation exercises as a means to mentally tune out the the effects of tinnitus.

“The more you want to get rid of it, the more you’re going to focus on on it, and the more difficult it’s going to be to stop thinking about it,” he said.

“[MindEar] provides small bites of information, which is going to help people to think differently about the situation, and develop this strategy, which will lead them to be able to stop thinking about it,” he added.

The research was funded by a project grant from the Eisdell Moore Centre, a New Zealand-based institution that supports research into hearing impairment.

In an initial clinical study of 30 people with tinnitus almost two-thirds of participants reported a clinically significant improvement. One group of participants received help from a chatbot. The other group used the chatbot and telepsychology services. There was no control group.

“It’s incredibly exciting, both from a research perspective but also as an application,” Bardy said. “We’re going to continue this research so we can better understand the needs of each individual and tailor the treatment to their needs.”

Experts note that the app could be a great help to people who can’t afford or can’t access a psychologist, or to those who have found benefits from other mindfulness or meditation apps on their phone.

While many people with tinnitus benefit from psychology, Bardy emphasizes it’s critical to consult with a doctor beforehand to rule out more serious underlying conditions.

“It could be that there is a certain medical condition that is treatable and we don’t want to miss that,” he said. “So that’s really important. The first step is always to talk to your doctor.”