This editorial discusses the clinical implications of an independent research study and does not represent the opinions of the original authors.
The American Tinnitus Association (ATA) reports that approximately 50 million people in the United States experience some degree of tinnitus.About one third of tinnitus sufferers consider it severe enough to seek medical attention. Fortunately only a small proportion of tinnitus sufferers experience symptoms that are debilitating enough that they feel they cannot function normally. But even if it does not cause debilitating symptoms, for many tinnitus still causes a number of disruptive effects such as sleep interference, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, frustration and depression (Tyler & Baker, 1983; Stouffer & Tyler, 1990; Axelsson, 1992; Meikle 1992; Dobie, 2004).
Therapeutic treatments for tinnitus include the use of tinnitus maskers, tinnitus retraining therapy, biofeedback and counseling . Though these methods provide relief for many the tendency for tinnitus to co-occur with sensorineural hearing loss (Hoffman & Reed, 2004) leads the majority of individuals to attempt management of tinnitus with the use of hearing aids alone (Henry, et al., 2005; Kochkin & Tyler, 2008; Shekhawat et al., 2013). There are a number of benefits that hearing aids may offer for individuals with tinnitus: audiological counseling during the fitting process may provide the individual with a better understanding of hearing loss and tinnitus (Searchfield et al., 2010); hearing aids may reduce the stress related to struggling to hear and understand; amplification of environmental sound may reduce perceived loudness of tinnitus (Tyler, 2008).
Prescriptive hearing aid fitting procedures are designed to improve audibility and assist hearing loss rather than address tinnitus concerns. Yet the majority of studies show that hearing aids alone can be useful for tinnitus management (Shekhawat et al., 2013). The Better Hearing Institute reports that approximately 28% of hearing aid users achieve moderate to substantial tinnitus relief with hearing aid use (Tyler, 2008). Approximately 66% of these individuals said their hearing aids offered tinnitus relief most or all the time and 29% reported that their hearing aids relieved their tinnitus all the time. However, little is known about how hearing aids should be adjusted to optimize this apparent relief from tinnitus. In a study comparing DSL I/O v4.0 and NAL-NL1, Wise (2003) found that low compression kneepoints in the DSL formula reduced tinnitus awareness for 80% of subjects, but these settings also made environmental sounds more annoying. Conversely, they had higher word recognition scores with NAL-NL1 but did not receive equal tinnitus reduction. The proposed explanation for this was the increased low-intensity, low-frequency gain of the DSL I/O formula versus the increased high frequency emphasis of NAL-NL1. Based on these findings, the author suggested the use of separate programs for regular use and for tinnitus relief.
Shekhawat and his colleagues began to address the issue of prescriptive hearing aid fitting for tinnitus by studying how output characteristics should be tailored to meet the needs of hearing aid users with tinnitus. Specifically, they examined how modifying the high frequency characteristics of the DSL v5 (Scollie et al., 2005) prescription would affect subjects’ short term tinnitus perception. Speech files with variable high frequency cut-offs and gain settings were designed and presented to subjects in matched pairs to arrive at the most favorable configuration for tinnitus relief.
Twenty-five participants mild to moderate high-frequency sensorineural hearing loss were recruited for participation. None of the participants had used hearing aids before but all indicated interest in trying hearing aids to alleviate their tinnitus. All subjects had experienced chronic, bothersome tinnitus for at least two years and the average perception of tinnitus loudness was 62.6 on a scale from 1-100, where 1 is very faint and 100 is very loud. Subjects had a mean Tinnitus Functional Index (TFI; Meikle et al., 2012) score of 39.30. Six participants reported unilateral tinnitus localized to the left side, 15 had bilateral tinnitus and 4 reported tinnitus that localized to the center of the head, which is likely to be present bilaterally though not necessarily symmetrical. The majority (40%) of the subjects reported their tinnitus quality as tonal, whereas 28% described it as noise, 20% as crickets and 12% as a combination of sound qualities. Tinnitus pitch matching was conducted using pairs of tones in which subjects were repeatedly asked to indicate which of the tones more closely matched the pitch of their tinnitus. The average matched tinnitus pitch was 7.892kHz with a range from 800Hz to 14.5kHz. When asked to describe the pitch of their tinnitus, most subjects defined it as “very high pitched”, some said “high pitched” and some said “medium pitched”.
There were 13 speech files, based on sentences spoken by a female talker, with variable high frequency characteristics. There were three cut-off frequencies (2, 4 and 6kHz) and four high frequency gain settings (+6, +3, -3 and -6dB). Stimuli were presented via a master hearing aid with settings programmed to match DSL I/O v5.0 prescriptive targets for each subject’s hearing loss. Pairs of sentences were presented in a round robin tournament procedure and subjects were asked to choose which one interfered most with their tinnitus and made it less audible. A computer program tabulated the number of “wins” for each sentence and collapsed the information across subjects to determine a “winner”, or the sentence that was most effective at reducing tinnitus audibility. Real-ear measures were used to compare DSL v5 prescribed settings with the characteristics of the winning sentence and outputs were recorded from 250Hz to 6000Hz.
The most preferred output for interfering with tinnitus perception was a 6dB reduction at 2kHz, which was chosen by 26.47% of the participants. A 6dB reduction at 4kHz was preferred by 14.74% of the subjects, followed by a 3dB reduction at 2kHz, which was preferred by 11.76%. There were no significant differences between the preferences for any of these settings.
They found that when tinnitus pitch was lower than 4kHz, the preferred setting had lower output than DSL v5 across the frequency range. The difference was small (1-3dB) and became smaller as tinnitus pitch increased. When tinnitus pitch was between 4-8kHz, subjects preferred slightly less output than DSL v5 for high frequencies and slightly more output for low frequencies, though these differences were minimal as well. When tinnitus pitch was higher than 8kHz, participants preferred output that was slightly greater than DSL v5 at three frequencies: 750Hz, 1kHz and 6kHz. From these results a trend emerged: as tinnitus pitch increased, preferred output became lower than DSL v5 though the differences were not statistically significant.
Few studies investigating the use of hearing aids for tinnitus management have considered the perceived pitch of the tinnitus or the prescriptive method of the hearing aids (Shekhawat et al., 2013). The results of this study suggest that DSL v5 could be an effective prescriptive formula for hearing aids used in a tinnitus treatment plan, though the pitch of the individual’s tinnitus might affect the optimal output settings. In general, they found that the higher the tinnitus pitch, the more the preferred output matched with DSL I.O v5.0 targets. This study agrees with an earlier report by Wise (2003) in which subjects preferred DSL v5 over NAL-NL1 for interfering with and reducing tinnitus. It is unknown how NAL-NL2 targets would fare in a similar comparison, though the NAL-NL2 formula may provide more tinnitus relief than its predecessor because it tends to prescribe slightly higher gain for low frequencies and lower compression ratios which could potentially provide more of a masking effect from environmental sounds. The NAL-NL2 formula should be studied as it pertains to tinnitus management, perhaps along with consideration of other factors including degree of loss, gender and prior experience with hearing aids, since these affect the targets prescribed by the updated formula (Keidser & Dillon, 2006; Keidser et al., 2008). The subjects in the present study had similar degrees of loss and all lacked prior experience with amplification; the NAL-NL2 formula takes these factors into consideration, prescribing slightly different gain based on degree of loss or for those who have used hearing aids before.
The authors recommend offering separate hearing aid programs for use when the listener desires tinnitus relief. Most fitting formulae are designed to optimize speech intelligibility and audibility, and based on previous reports, an individual might prefer one formula when speech understanding and communication is their top priority, and may prefer another, used with or without an added noise masker, when their tinnitus is bothering them.
They also propose that tinnitus pitch matching should be considered when programming hearing aids, though there is often quite a bit of variability in results and testing needs to be repeated several times to increase reliability. Still, their study agrees with prior work in suggesting that the pitch of the tinnitus affects how likely hearing aids are to reduce it and whether output adjustments can impact how effective the hearing aids are to this end. Schaette (2010) found that individuals with tinnitus pitch lower than 6kHz showed more reduction of tinnitus with hearing aid use than did subjects whose pitch was higher than 6kHz. This makes sense because of the typical bandwidth of hearing aids, in which most gain is delivered below this frequency range. Not surprisingly, another study reported that hearing aids were most effective at reducing tinnitus when the pitch of the tinnitus was within the frequency response range of the hearing aids (McNeil et al., 2012). Though incorporating tinnitus pitch matching into a clinical protocol might seem daunting or time consuming, it is probably possible to use an informal bracketing procedure, similar to one used for MCLs, to get an idea of the individual’s tinnitus pitch range. Testing can be repeated at subsequent visits to eventually arrive at a more reliable estimate. If pitch matching measures are not possible, clinicians can question the patient about their perceived tinnitus pitch range and, with reference the current study, adjust outputs in the 2kHz to 4kHz range to determine if the individual experiences improvement in tinnitus relief.
Proposed are a series of considerations for fitting hearing instruments on tinnitus sufferers and for employing dedicated tinnitus programs:
– noise reduction should be disabled;
– fixed activation of omnidirectional microphones introduce more environmental noise;
– in contrast to the previous recommendation, full-time activation of directional microphones will increase the hearing aid noise floor;
– lower compression knee points increase amplification for softer sounds;
– expansion should be turned off to increase amplification of low-level background sound;
– efforts should be made to minimize occlusion, which can emphasize the perception of tinnitus;
– ensuring physical comfort of the devices can minimize the user’s general awareness of their ears and the hearing aids, potentially reducing their attention to the tinnitus as well (Sheldrake & Jastreboff, 2004; Searchfield, 2006);
– user controls are important as they allow access to alternate hearing aid programs and sound therapy options.
Dr. Shekhawat and his colleagues also underscore the importance of counseling tinnitus sufferers who choose hearing aids. Clinicians need to ensure that these patients have realistic expectations about the potential benefits of hearing aids and that they know the devices will not cure their tinnitus. Follow-up care is especially important to determine if adjustments or further training is necessary to improve the performance of the aids for all of their intended purposes.
Currently, little is known about how to optimize hearing aid settings for tinnitus relief and there are no prescriptive recommendations targeted specifically for tinnitus sufferers. Shekhawat and his colleagues propose that the DSL v5 formula may be an appropriate starting point for these individuals, as their basic program and/or in an alternate program designated for use when their tinnitus is particularly bothersome. Most importantly, however, are the observations that intentional manipulation of parameters common to most hearing aid fittings may increase likelihood of tinnitus relief with hearing aid use. Further investigation into the optimization of these fitting parameters may reveal a prescriptive combination that audiologists can leverage to benefit individuals with hearing loss who also seek relief from the stress and annoyance of tinnitus.
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