Do you find yourself constantly battling tinnitus symptoms and contemplating the use of ear plugs?
Various types, from foam ear plugs to custom-moulded devices, offer promising avenues for hearing protection and tinnitus alleviation. Each style is tailored for specific activities and individual needs. Yet, it's essential to be cautious. Using ear plugs inappropriately or too frequently can actually aggravate your tinnitus, turning a hopeful remedy into a setback.
Wondering how to navigate the world of ear plugs for effective tinnitus management? Continue reading as Oto unravels all you need to know to make an informed choice.
Can ear plugs worsen tinnitus?
While ear plugs are often seen as a go-to solution for tinnitus relief, many people find that their symptoms worsen after using them. Why does this happen?
Tinnitus is essentially an internal noise, contrasting with the external sounds around you. When you insert ear plugs, you're reducing the environmental noise that naturally masks tinnitus, making the internal noise more prominent and bothersome.
In other words, when you reduce external noise by using ear plugs, you're tipping the auditory scale towards internal noise. This imbalance makes the tinnitus sound more prominent, as there's less environmental noise to mask it. It's like turning down the volume of background music in a room, making a conversation more audible.
If your hearing levels are normal, but tinnitus remains a nuisance, it may be beneficial to consult with an audiologist. You could also consider using a tinnitus masker. These devices fill your auditory environment with ambient sounds, masking or blending with the ringing to make it less intrusive.
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How to use ear plugs properly for tinnitus management
Carrying ear plugs for tinnitus relief is common, but knowing when and how to use them effectively is crucial. Improper use can lead to issues like reduced sound tolerance and even worsen your tinnitus symptoms.
When to use ear plugs
Understanding when sound becomes harmful is essential. According to guidelines from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the threshold for safe sound exposure is set at 85 decibels (dB). This is comparable to heavy city traffic or a busy restaurant. Exposure to this level of sound is considered safe for up to eight hours without causing permanent hearing damage.
For every increase of 3dB above 85dB, the safe exposure time is halved. For instance, a sound level of 88dB, which is comparable to a food blender, is safe for up to four hours. At 91dB, similar to a subway train, this drops to just two hours.
In a concert setting where sound levels can reach up to 120dB, the safety time is reduced to mere minutes. Hence, prolonged exposure to such high sound levels without proper hearing protection can lead to permanent hearing loss.
Risks of overuse
When you use ear plugs frequently, you're limiting the range of sounds that reach your auditory pathway. This leads to a phenomenon known as 'increased central gain'. In simple terms, your central nervous system compensates for the reduced auditory input by becoming more sensitive to softer sounds. For this reason, it's important to only use hearing protection on an as-needed basis. Incorrect usage or overuse can lead to a range of issues, including earwax impaction and ear infections.
Hyperacusis and phonophobia
Extensive use can also result in reduced sound tolerance, known as hyperacusis, as the ear becomes more sensitive to normal sound levels. In such cases, even ordinary noises, like the hum of a refrigerator or the chatter of people, can become uncomfortably loud.
On the other hand, phonophobia is a condition characterised by an irrational fear of everyday sounds, such as the beep of an indicator or the closing of a door. Overuse of ear plugs can lead to reduced sound tolerance, making individuals more sensitive to everyday noises and potentially triggering or exacerbating phonophobia.
Unlike hyperacusis, which is a clinical form of sound intolerance, phonophobia has a psychological component that can disrupt daily activities like housework, commuting, and social interactions. Both conditions can significantly impact your quality of life, but there are effective treatment options available.
Recovery and adaptation
Upon removing ear plugs, many individuals experience a noticeable decrease in tinnitus symptoms. This immediate relief is often due to the reintroduction of external sounds, which help to mask the internal noise.
However, issues like phonophobia and hyperacusis may persist for a longer period. Over time, the central nervous system will gradually readjust, but in some cases, specialised therapies like sound therapy or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may be recommended. Through CBT, you can identify sound triggers, reframe your perception of them, and alter your behavioural responses to reduce fear and improve sound tolerance.
If you find yourself relying heavily on ear plugs, it may be beneficial to consult a healthcare professional for a comprehensive auditory evaluation. They can perform tests to assess your sound tolerance levels and determine whether you're experiencing phonophobia, hyperacusis, or simply reduced sound tolerance. They can also provide insights into how improper use of ear plugs might be affecting your tinnitus.
Types of tinnitus ear plugs
Tinnitus ear plugs work by reducing the intensity of external sounds and providing a barrier between the ears and the environment. Some are engineered to specifically address the frequencies that trigger tinnitus symptoms. By doing so, they effectively mask the disruptive ringing or buzzing noise. Each type comes with its own set of advantages and limitations.
Ear Plugs To Help Tinnitus
There are situations where ear plugs for tinnitus are warranted to protect hearing and reduce the intrusion of the ringing: when sound is harmfully loud such as at a concert, sporting event, while using power tools, riding motor vehicles, or other loud hobbies or activities. No matter what they are for, ear plugs should never hurt or cause discomfort, and they should feel secure in the ear.
To have custom ear plugs made, consult an audiologist who can examine the ear, make an impression, select the optimal ear piece and features, and provide education regarding how to insert, remove, and clean the ear piece.
There are a variety of ear plugs that are specially tailored for specific listening situations.
For musicians, custom musician ear plugs reduce sound equally across the frequency spectrum such that music retain high fidelity of spectral components (i.e. bass and treble). Musician ear plugs can come with a variety of attenuation levels, generally ranging from 9dB (mild), 15dB (moderate), and 25dB (significant) attenuation.
In-ear monitors also offer sound attenuation as well as direct streaming of sound from an audio source for good fidelity on stage. Generally these are used by professional musicians.
Swim plugs are useful for preventing water from entering the ear canal during showering, bathing, swimming, or other activities that involve water. If you worry about getting water in your ears, consider an over the counter swim plug or custom swim plug that is specifically molded for your ears.
The most important aspects of swim plugs are that they fit the ear securely and comfortably, and that they actually prevent water from entering the ear canal.
If you don't prefer to use swim plugs for bathing or swimming, you can pat dry the outer ear with a towel to keep it healthy and dry. For otherwise healthy ears, a small amount of moisture isn't harmful and will dry on its own.
We recommend Happy Ears ear plugs for swimming. They’re Eco friendly and are designed for peolple with tinnitus.
Best Ear Plugs For Sleeping
Ear plugs can be a great tool for people who want to reduce environmental noise that can't otherwise be eliminated (such as noisy neighbours or street noise). They also empower the user with a sense of control over their ability to reduce bothersome noise and get restful sleep.
Westone's custom sleep plugs can attenuate sound by 37-39dB. An impression of the ear must be cast by an audiologist who will order the sleep plugs through Westone or another ear piece manufacturer.
For an inexpensive and easy solution, try Mack's Ultra Soft Foam Earplugs, which reduce sound by as much as 33dB and are available for purchase on Amazon. Foam earplugs can also be purchased at most pharmacies and at other retail locations.
If tinnitus is your concern (as opposed to reducing noise), consider using a tinnitus pillow or a white noise machine. It's also helpful to practice good sleep hygiene and reference how to sleep with tinnitus.
Noise Cancelling Ear Plugs
For people who want to reduce the intrusion of a noisy environment during waking hours, noise cancelling ear plugs can be a good solution. Technically, noise cancelling ear plugs work two ways:
- Blocking sound from entering the ear canal (referred to as passive noise cancellation), such as foam ear plugs
- Producing a pleasant, non-interesting background sound to mask bothersome environmental sounds (referred to as active noise cancellation)
Examples of ear buds that use active noise cancellation (in addition to some degree of passive noise cancellation) include:
Bose QuietComfort Noise Cancelling Ear Buds feature touch control, controllable noise cancellation, and recharge-ability
Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 earbuds offer a convenient and discreet wireless ear bud option for noise cancellation
An important consideration regarding noise cancellation is that it should be used on an as-needed basis as over-use (i.e. all or most of the time) can lead to increased tinnitus and sound sensitivity complaints. In addition to ear buds, there are also noise cancelling headphones for tinnitus.
Discover Oto: Your trusted digital ally in tackling tinnitus
Struggling with the constant noise of tinnitus? Oto is here to help you reclaim your life. Developed by a team of experts who personally understand the challenges of tinnitus, the comprehensive mobile platform delivers expertly designed content to help you sleep better, focus more, and learn effective coping strategies.
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Unlike other solutions that focus solely on hardware or traditional therapies, Oto leverages the proven effectiveness of CBT, the most effective way to deal with tinnitus. Our digital programs are a unique blend of medical expertise and personal understanding, offering a reliable path to tuning out tinnitus.
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What sets Oto apart?
Oto doesn't aim to mask or treat the sound of tinnitus. Instead, we help you tune it out, thereby reducing its impact on your life. Our audio sessions range from three to 30 minutes and are designed to equip you with the mental tools to live better with tinnitus.