Tinnitus is unfortunately a common problem, affecting an estimated 50 million Americans over 50. Tinnitus causes people who have it to hear continuous sounds “in their heads” that people surrounding them can’t hear – buzzing or roaring sounds, high-pitched whistling or ringing, or rapid clicking. In some cases, the tinnitus is a minor nuisance, while in serious cases it is horribly debilitating. Steady tinnitus often leads to other problems such as anxiety, sleeping disorders, fatigue, and depression.
Although there are technological treatments for tinnitus, such as hearing aids that mask and suppress the buzzing or ringing sounds, there is also a form of counseling known as Tinnitus Retraining Therapy. The concept behind TRT is to retrain the brain to reduce sensitivity to the tinnitus noises. The idea is to lower the perceptions of the sounds and reduce negative reactions to the sounds.
Discovered in the 1980s by neuroscientist Pawel Jastreboff, TRT challenges the assumptions of many audiologists that tinnitus is a physical disorder due to ear damage that cannot be fixed. Jastreboff has proposed an alternate model for tinnitus based on his background in behavioral neuroscience. Thus freed from the temptation to regard the problem as something that cannot be fixed, he set about developing behavioral modification techniques that could fix it.
The basic assumption of Tinnitus Retraining Therapy is that the tinnitus is not a disease per se, but a reflection of hyperacusis – a person’s innate ability to hear normal sounds generated by the auditory system that others cannot hear. In his theory, it is not the buzzing sounds themselves that are a problem, and the distress they cause some people is due to an over reaction to the sounds. Only people who have been trained in how to administer the TRT training can lead the counseling sessions, which use precise and individually-tuned techniques of training and sound therapy to teach people to eliminate their over reactions to the sounds they don’t want to hear, and instead focus on sounds they do want to hear.
Counselors trained in TRT have had remarkable successes helping patient eliminate their negative reactions to the sounds they hear, thereby relieving distress.