Tinnitus is more than just a perception of ringing in the ears – it’s an interplay between physiological and psychological elements that have the potential to affect well-being. While not everyone suffers from tinnitus in their lifetime, it has the potential to be distressing if not treated. Functional medicine treatment options for tinnitus exist – and can provide significant relief.
But first, what is tinnitus? And how do you treat it?
What Is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is an awareness of a noise with no identifiable corresponding external acoustic source. In other words, you hear something that has no external source – like ringing in the ears or a buzzing noise that won’t go away. This can be accompanied by emotional distress and functional disability, especially when tinnitus is chronic.
Tinnitus is a common symptom that affects between 11-30% of the population at some point in their lives. Risk of developing tinnitus significantly increases with age and is often associated with a deterioration of hearing ability, and males have a higher incidence than females.
Risk Factors for Tinnitus
Some pre-existing conditions may increase your chances of getting tinnitus, including both medical and psychological conditions like:
- Hyperacusis, which is a reduced tolerance to sound, or other functional hearing disorders.
- Anxiety and depression cycles, which can involve sleep or concentration challenges, cognitive difficulties, or mood volatility. This can also impact stress, pain, and fatigue – all of which influence tinnitus and perceived distress.
- Neurological conditions like meningitis, which is an infection in the brain and spinal cord membranes.
- Cardiovascular conditions like hypertension.
- Vascular conditions, such as atherosclerosis where plaque deposits cause narrowing of the arteries. This may cause pulsatile tinnitus and a rhythmic sound in your ear – often from blood vessels.
- Metabolic imbalances like diabetes.
Other general factors that increase your risk of tinnitus include:
- Emotional distress, which can precede sudden hearing loss
- Increased age
- Being male
- Having a hearing impairment
- Previous exposures to loud noises
- COVID-19 infection, as around 10% of COVID patients experience tinnitus.
Chronic tinnitus can often cause significant distress to the sufferer. Many times, those who suffer from chronic tinnitus often struggle with anxiety, depression, sleep challenges, and concentration difficulties making multidimensional treatment essential for relief.
How Is Tinnitus Diagnosed?
When presenting to your provider with a ringing in your ears, they will complete several steps to get a well-rounded picture of what’s going on. A complete history will be taken, asking about any underlying conditions or medications that may be causing the tinnitus, followed by a physical evaluation. You may also be referred to an ear, nose, and throat doctor, known as an ENT physician, who will do a further evaluation on your ears, neck, and head to look for any anatomical causes. An audiologist is also be recommended to evaluate your hearing with a hearing test.
Some imaging tests may be performed to help with diagnosis, including MRI, CT, or ultrasound to identify whether the tinnitus is due to a structural problem or medical condition.
Functional Medicine Tinnitus Treatment
Tinnitus treatment is most successful when it’s well-rounded, holistic, and individualized to the patient to tackle the root of the symptoms. This often includes treatment that is multidimensional and interdisciplinary – including counseling that helps reduce tinnitus-related distress and improve quality of life, dietetics, and functional medicine support.
Common tinnitus treatments include reducing stress, treating anxiety and depression, getting high blood pressure under control, and having better control of blood sugars. Hearing aids may also be recommended for those with hearing loss, and ear maskers for those with significant tinnitus. These treatments can positively impact distress some feel while struggling with tinnitus.
Additional tinnitus treatments include treating infections, improving sleep and nutrition, and utilizing additional therapies like physical therapy, craniosacral therapy, acupuncture, neurofeedback, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and tinnitus retraining therapy. Let’s take a closer look.
When the body has an infection, the immune system goes to work to fight off the attack. While this is often a good thing, infection can also impact other parts of the body during the immune process. This was seen with COVID-19 and its effect on tinnitus. Studies found that COVID-19 likely impacted auditory-vestibular systems by injuring structures of the inner ear, resulting in up to 10% of new tinnitus symptoms starting after a COVID-19 infection. This effect blunted the immune system – providing evidence that treating infections and supporting the immune system can support tinnitus symptom management.
This makes treating infections, both acute and chronic in nature, imperative to support immune function and help manage tinnitus symptoms. Working with a functional medicine provider can help with this. Functional medicine takes a holistic, well-rounded approach to full body health so you can discover if any untreated infections are lurking in your body.
Because of the multidimensional nature of tinnitus and how it’s affected by lifestyle factors such as stress and sleep, improving sleep quality and quantity can improve symptoms.
There are many strategies for improving sleep, and while you may have tried many, there’s always new techniques you can try. We have tons of resources on our website to help you learn strategies to improve your sleep. Learn how to get quality sleep, strategies to enhance your sleep, how to manage stress to improve sleep, and tips to master your sleep with these resources. Want even more support? Working with one of our functional medicine providers can help.
Reducing inflammation in the body may improve tinnitus symptoms. Eating an anti-inflammatory, whole foods diet is one of the best ways to target inflammation. What does this look like? Avoid inflammatory foods such as:
- Processed meats and red meats
- Foods made with white flour, such as baked goods, breads or pasta
- Processed foods with added sugars or trans fats
Instead, focus on increasing your intake of whole foods, many of which offer anti-inflammatory benefits. An anti-inflammatory, whole foods diet increases your intake of a variety of beneficial nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, and gut-healthy foods – all of which support whole body health and work to reduce inflammation.
An emerging treatment for tinnitus, neurofeedback teaches increasing self-control of brain function to participants by measuring brain activity with electrodes and providing feedback. This helps to control distress that may arise from tinnitus symptoms and teaches coping strategies to help.
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)
Also known as TMS, transcranial magnetic stimulation uses gentle magnetic waves similar to an MRI machine to stimulate certain areas of the brain. By stimulating the brain in certain ways, it’s believed neuroplasticity can increase, which is how the brain changes itself. This can help restore more normal brain functioning in the presence of tinnitus symptoms. One study found that TMS could reduce the loudness of tinnitus experienced by the sufferer.
Since it’s believed that tinnitus involves several areas of the brain, TMS can target certain areas to reduce overactivity. The auditory cortex, which is involved in processing sounds, is one area that can be targeted with TMS to provide relief.
Tinnitus Retraining Therapy
Tinnitus retraining therapy, or TRT, consists of directive counseling and sound therapy, with the goal of reclassifying tinnitus as a neutral stimulus and decreasing the strength of neuronal activity in response to tinnitus.
A Functional Medicine Approach to Tinnitus Treatment
Treatment for tinnitus requires a holistic approach – both in obtaining a thorough history to diagnose the problem, but also for successful treatment. A proper functional medicine approach that takes a holistic view may be what you need to get to the source of your tinnitus symptoms and find lasting relief. It recognizes health as multidimensional and gets a well-rounded picture of your health history by looking at current symptoms, diet, psychological health, and past treatments.
At Arizona Wellness Medicine, we can provide you with this. With our highly trained functional medicine providers, we get a complete picture of your health history, your current symptoms, your diet, and more – so we can get to the bottom of your symptoms to find lasting relief. Discover how Arizona Wellness Medicine can help here.