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hearing aids and tinnitus

June 5th, 2015 at 11:19

I have had increasing problems with tinnitus over the past four years. I figured that I’d write out some of my experiences for people who are in a similar situation looking to habituate, because I definitely ran into a lot of issues finding a solution that could work for me.

There are a number of different types of tinnitus, caused by a number of things. (How’s that for generic?) Generally, people experience one of two types of tinnitus — subjective, which means that has no apparent physical cause, and objective, which generally is caused by something physiological (like spasming muscles in the middle ear or altered blood flow to the ear). Subjective tinnitus is something most of us have experienced at one time or another — think about your ears ringing for a time after exposure to loud music. In some people, this ringing never fades… in some people, it’s not even ringing, but hissing, or other tones.

My Tinnitus Backstory

My initial issue was with a high-pitched tone reminiscent of the sound of a fluorescent light. In January 2014, after suffering from what is called a “spike” (when the perceived loudness of the tone increases or changes) for a number of months, I finally got around to getting an ENT referral to determine if my issues were physiological, or instead caused by something else. I underwent an audiogram to test my hearing, because for many people, tinnitus is the brain’s reaction to hearing loss in a certain range, and when they correct that loss, their brain no longer looks to fill the silence. However, my audiogram was really good — my hearing is better than average, in fact. It was at this time that we realized I suffer from a secondary issue called hyperacusis, where sounds in a certain range are painful to hear. Unfortunately for me, this range is around the area where little kid voices fall, so when I was around a number of children talking excitedly, I would have a very negative physical and emotional reaction.

Since I had no recent exposure to loud noises, had started no medications that can cause tinnitus, and had no apparent physiological issues (my tones at the time were constant), the doctor told me that essentially my options were:
– deal with it until I habituated (I’ll describe that in a sec)
– mask with white/blue/purple noise
– undergo TRT (Tinnitus Retraining Therapy), which required going to San Francisco and is expensive and doesn’t always work

Habituation is essentially something we’ve all done — because if we hadn’t, you’d sit there listening to your pulse rush through your ears and never be able to focus on something else. It’s when your brain gets used to a noise and essentially begins to filter it into the background, so it isn’t a constant disruption. (You CAN still hear the noise when you focus, though — like when you go into a quiet room and can still hear your heart.)

At this point, for me, my tinnitus was causing a number of issues. It was making me constantly agitated, because I was receiving far more mental stimulation from the tone that I was always hearing than I could handle. By the end of the day, my shoulders would be up around my ears because my body was essentially in defense mode against further stimulation, and then I’d go home, where my kids’ voices would key me up further because of the hyperacusis. (I remember one time Katie yelped something while sitting in my lap — she’s pretty much always on high-volume — and I had a physical reaction as if someone was actually hurting me, and stood up abruptly to get her off and away from me.) I was short-tempered at work, which I could, for the most part, overcome by just being aware of my mental state, but worse at home, where I would be snappy with the kids instead of patient.

So, I decided to go the white noise route, and started using a white noise generator on my phone. I noticed the first time I started using it that I felt instant relief. My field of hearing felt like it opened up significantly when I put the earbuds in, because I wasn’t just focusing on the noise. I found that blue noise (which has a slightly altered increase in db across each frequency range) was what masked best, and learned that the key to this kind of habituation technique is to keep the sound of the color noise slightly lower than the tinnitus so your brain gets an opportunity to get used to it.

So, that worked for a while. Then, in May 2014, I changed jobs, to one that was purely managerial as opposed to slightly. I’d already had the problem at work where I couldn’t really wear earbuds to meetings, but if I describe to the people in the meeting what was going on, they were generally accepting. Even then, however, the impression was left to them that I wasn’t fully engaged. And, of course, outside of work, my kids would yank out the earbuds, or I would get caught on things, etc. They were a sub-optimal solution at best. So, I decided to start investigating hearing aids.

Things To Know About Getting Hearing Aids For Tinnitus

Especially if you have better-than-average hearing, or no hearing loss, know right now that you will be unlikely to see a hearing aid specialist who has any experience treating tinnitus with hearing aids. I started working with a local store in Palo Alto in October of 2014, and while it our relationship began fairly amiably, at the end he was so frustrated with me (I kept pointing out issues) that we essentially stopped working together. (This is not a great outcome considering how much these things cost!)

The first problem I found is that most hearing aid professionals do not understand that they need to MUTE THE MICROPHONE ON THE AID. I went through a month of testing a pair of aids where I simply could not convince the guy that even though he lowered the amplification, they were still picking up noise via the mics. His way of checking was to repeatedly just pop them in and try to use them himself, but he was in his 60s so when he put the aid in he couldn’t hear the mic. (The first time I noticed it was when I was wearing them and giving Max a piggyback ride, then he talked forward and it BLEW MY GODDAMN EARS OUT.)

I tried a number of devices:
Resound Verso 9 TS RIC
Resound Verso 7 TS RIC
Resound Verso 5 TS BTE

Generally, I preferred the RIC because of the size and the feel of the earpiece. I ultimately found that the syncing between programs was a feature I wanted, which is why I would have gone with the 7, but since the guy couldn’t figure out how to make that work for the 7s with the mics turned off so I got 9s discounted to the 7 price. Also, even though these are nice aids, he broke the battery tabs off of one pair, which is why I was trying out aids all the way through December.

My Current Tinnitus Status

My tinnitus has developed into three tones, and my right ear is worse than my left:
– constant, high-pitched (like a fluorescent light)
– constant, low hiss (like white noise)
– constant, fractal (I don’t know how else to describe it — extremely high-pitched and constantly changing tones throughout octaves); this is also reactive, meaning it can be made louder by something touching my face/neck

I went for three months having mostly habituated, which took a long time to get to — I just found that I needed my little blue hearing aids less and less. It’s back now, though, so I am using them again, and they are as helpful as they were before.

The worst time of day is night, because it’s quiet and I don’t sleep with the aids in. I remember being frustrated just a number of months ago that I felt I’d never get to a point where I would not be constantly bothered by my tinnitus — and that feeling deepened when I developed that third tone, because I couldn’t see how one would get used to something that’s constantly changing. I can tell you, though, that if you can find a comfortable coping mechanism that works for you, habituation is within your grasp — our brains are pretty freaking amazing. And knowing that I got used to it last time it spiked makes it easy to not freak out about this one!

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