A novel approach to tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, a condition striking approximately 50 million Americans, may provide long-term relief, according to a study published in the journal Mindfulness.

While some people deal with tinnitus by drowning out the ringing, roaring or buzzing noise with white sound, research by UCSF clinical psychologist Jennifer Gans, PsyD, has found that practicing "mindfulness," a mental state achieved by focusing awareness on the present and calmly acknowledging one's feelings and body sensations, may be more beneficial.

In the pilot study, seven tinnitus patients at the UCSF Audiology Clinic were assessed 12 months after the completion of an eight-week mindfulness stress reduction course, which included weekly group instruction, a one-day retreat, and reading and meditation.

Gans found that self-reported levels in the tinnitus handicap inventory, which focused on social and occupational functioning, sleep habits, depression and anxiety, had averaged 50.6 prior to the program, 41.7 after completion and had further dipped to 22.8 one year later. This meant that the degree of handicap had shifted from moderate to mild levels.

Six of the seven patients said they had continued practicing mindfulness since finishing the program. The average age of the participants was 58.

"We found that perceptions of chronic tinnitus changed, with participants noting that they felt an increased tolerance, acceptance and courage to live with it, even after 12 months of completing the program. People commented that tinnitus no longer seemed like a dreadful curse; it was just another sensation that could be annoying but was not insurmountable," said Gans.

Tinnitus is defined as auditory perceptions that are not produced by external sounds. Common causes include aging, with the hearing loss that often ensues, prolonged exposure to loud noise, head injury and use of some prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

Tinnitus may be managed by masking the unwelcome sounds with an electronic device that is worn in the ear and emits a low-level noise aimed at desensitizing the patient to sound. Another option is cognitive behavioral therapy, which aims to reduce or correct one's negative response to the sounds, enabling the patient to function well despite their tinnitus.

Co-authors of the study are Michael Cole, PhD, of UC Berkeley and Benjamin Greenberg of the American School of Professional Psychology.