I love hearing from Sound Health readers. I use your feedback to help me decide what to research and write about. Which is why, today, I want to address one of the most frequently asked questions I find in my inbox: “Are there are any ‘healing sounds’ to help alleviate tinnitus?”
The answer is yes!
Promising new research has discovered that the key to easing tinnitus is to change the way your brain reacts to it. And you can do that with two of my favorite, all-natural healing tools: Sound and vibration.
And as someone who frequently experiences tinnitus, I can personally attest to how effective this approach can be. I’ll tell you how it works in just a minute. But first, let’s take a closer look at this common—and frustrating—condition.
Tinnitus is most often described as “ringing in the ears.”
But it also manifests in other ways. For some, tinnitus can sound like buzzing, humming, hissing, or whistling. These sounds can last for hours or come and go. And they can be heard in one ear or both.
The cause of tinnitus can vary. Ear wax build-up, drugs (including certain antibiotics, antimalarials, diuretics, antidepressants, aspirin, and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories), head/neck trauma, sinus pressure, traumatic brain injury, and ear bone changes can trigger tinnitus symptoms.
But the most common cause is when a portion of the 12,000 tiny hair cells in your inner ear become bent or broken. This often happens after exposure to loud sounds.
(If you’ve ever been to a loud concert, you know exactly what I’m talking about! But usually, this sort of tinnitus is only short term and goes away after a few hours.)
These tiny cells help translate sound waves into electric signals for the brain’s auditory cortex to process. Different parts of the auditory cortex each process specific sound frequencies, which are measured in hertz, or Hz (also known as “tones”).
But when these ear hair cells become damaged, the ear can no longer communicate with your brain’s auditory center. So the nerves in the auditory center start “talking” more than usual to figure out what happened. Eventually they’ll start talking all at once, which is what your brain “hears” as tinnitus.
Fortunately, as I mentioned earlier, researchers have found that some of the oldest “medicines” known to human beings—sound and vibration—can be an effective solution.
Researchers studied the effects of a technique I often talk about: Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS). With VNS, you essentially generate your own sound inside your body, creating vibrations that offer an array of healing properties.
In multiple studies, researchers paired VNS with specific tones to help restore normal activity in the brain’s auditory pathway (where your hearing happens). They found this intervention reduced, and in some cases, completely eliminated tinnitus symptoms in many of the patients.
In one 2019 study published in The Journal of Neurophysiology, researchers found that over a 20-day period, 300 brief pulses of daily electronic VNS paired with a 9-kHz tone effectively repaired the brain’s damaged auditory processing.
9kHz is a very high-pitched sound that resembles the ringing of tinnitus. You can hear it here. (But be sure to turn your volume down first!)
In a 2013 study, researchers also found that treating tinnitus using a combination of VNS and tone therapy brought significant improvement to participants—both lowering the perceived sound and the discomfort that can accompany it.
The good news is, you can get these same effects in the comfort of your home, completely naturally and without spending a penny.
First off, if you have tinnitus, research shows a few common things can make it worse. So try to avoid the following:
On the flip side, here are a few activities that can help:
Personally, I perform this VNS exercise whenever I experience tinnitus. The humming helps to disrupt the brain activity that causes the tinnitus noise. (If you prefer, singing can also provide this same effect.)
Modified Bhramari Pranayama for Tinnitus:
Remember, you can stop during the exercise any time you want to. Or you can continue repeating the sequences a few more times if you’d like… Whatever feels best for your body.
I’d also like to note that if plugging your ears or covering your eyes give you any sort of pain, an eye mask and earplugs also work just fine.
Take it from me—a lifelong, professional drummer—not protecting your ears can wreak havoc on your hearing. But even if the damage has been done, there is hope—with the simple, natural steps I outlined above.
Jim Donovan M.Ed.
American Physiological Society. (2019). Nerve Stimulation + Repetitive Sounds Help Improve Hearing. NewsWise. Retrieved from: newswise.com/articles/nerve-stimulation-repetitive-sounds-help-improve-hearing
Borland, M. et al. (2019). Pairing vagus nerve stimulation with tones drives plasticity across the auditory pathway. Journal of Neurophysiology. 122(2): pp. 659 – 671. Retrieved from: journals.physiology.org/doi/abs/10.1152/jn.00832.2018?utm_campaign=8.14.2019&utm_medium=PressRelease&utm_source=JNP&journalCode=jn
Causes. (n.d.) American Tinnitus Association. Retrieved from: ata.org/understanding-facts/causes
Harvard Health Publishing. (2020). Tinnitus: Ringing in the ears and what to do about it. Harvard Medical School. Retrieved from: health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/tinnitus-ringing-in-the-ears-and-what-to-do-about-it
Kochilas, H. et al. (2020). Vagus nerve stimulation paired with tones for tinnitus suppression: Effects on voice and hearing. Laryngoscope Investigative Otolaryngology. 5(2): pp. 286 – 296. Retrieved from: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32337360
Line Up! To Reverse Hearing Loss, New Hair Cells Need to Stand in Formation. (2019). Noisy Planet. Retrieved from: noisyplanet.nidcd.nih.gov/have-you-heard/new-hair-cells-need-to-stand-in-formation-to-reverse-hearing-loss#:~:text=Hearing%20is%20an%20amazing%20process,top%20of%20each%20hair%20cell.
The Tinnitus Clinic. (2013). Tinittius Treatment – Causes and treatment of tinnitus. [Video]. Retrieved from: youtube.com/watch?v=fIAjJogJ0cs
What causes tinnitus? (n.d.) Sound Relief Hearing Center. Retrieved from: soundrelief.com/what-causes-tinnitus/
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I hope it helps you. Jim