What Exactly is Tinnitus Retraining Therapy and Who Might Benefit From It?

Tinnitus is widespread in the United States with approximately 50 million sufferers over the age of 50. Tinnitus sufferers hear continuous sounds in their heads that others can’t hear such as clicking, buzzing, humming, ringing or whistling. Tinnitus is commonly referred to by its slang name – ringing-in-the-ears. Sometimes, the tinnitus is a minor annoyance, while in extreme cases it is horribly debilitating. Persistent tinnitus often leads to other ailments such as sleeping disorders, anxiety, depression, and fatigue.

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. Using a combination of mechanisms, TRT “retrains” tinnitus sufferers and gives them the ability to reduce their perceptions of the noises they hear, so they no longer react to the sounds negatively, and thus eventually cease being bothered by them.

Created by Austrian neuroscientist Pawel Jastreboff in the 1980s, Tinnitus Retraining Therapy is a radically different approach to tinnitus treatment. It challenges the assumption among most audiologists that tinnitus is the result of physical ear damage which cannot be reversed. While it is true that exposure to loud sounds can cause tinnitus, Jastreboff proposed an alternative neuro-physical model based on his training 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.

According to Jastreboff’s model, tinnitus is not a disease or condition in itself, but a function of hyperacusis – the ability of some people to become aware of normal sounds generated by the auditory system that most people filter out or are unaware of. In other words, it’s not the sounds themselves that are a problem, just the distress and over reaction to hearing them. 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.

TRT counselors have had remarkable success over the years in enabling patients to overcome their conditioned negative responses to tinnitus, thus enabling them to eliminate the distress that they feel.