Cognitive therapy more effective in reducing stress, insomnia and hearing issues than traditional techniques
A mindfulness-based approach can dramatically reduce the impact of tinnitus, according to a ground breaking study that will offer hope to the one in 10 people who are affected by the condition at some time in their lives.
Defined as the sensation of hearing sounds in the absence of any external sound, tinnitus can lead to emotional stress, insomnia, concentration problems and hearing issues.
While its cause is unknown, specialists insist it is not a disease or an illness. Rather, according to the British Tinnitus Association (BTA), it results from some type of change that can be either mental or physical and may be unrelated to hearing. There is no known cure but the study, published in the journals Ear and Hearing and Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, suggests the effects can be mitigated using psychological techniques.
The research, led by Dr Laurence McKenna from University College London Hospitals NHS foundation trust and Dr Liz Marks from the department of psychology at the University of Bath, found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) can help sufferers far more effectively than the relaxation-based treatments currently recommended by many tinnitus clinics. This is welcome news for the one in 100 people who say they are left “very distressed” or “disabled” by tinnitus and the one in 20 people who report that they are moderately distressed by it.
“We compared MBCT to relaxation therapy, a traditional treatment for people with chronic tinnitus, to determine if MBCT was a better option,” Marks said. “In total, 75 patients took part in the trial at UCLH’s Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear hospital receiving either MBCT or relaxation therapy. The study found that both treatments led to a reduction in tinnitus severity, psychological distress, anxiety and depression for patients.”
But Marks said the study also highlighted a clear difference between the two treatments. “The MBCT treatment led to significantly greater reductions in tinnitus severity, and this improvement lasted for longer. In addition, 182 patients who completed MBCT routinely in our clinic showed a similar level of improvement.”
Relaxation therapy provides patients with specific skills to reduce stress levels. In contrast, MBCT, taught by clinical psychologists, teaches patients to pay purposeful, present-moment attention to experiences, rather than trying to suppress them. According to its proponents, this is a more helpful way of responding to tinnitus. People learn how to “accept” tinnitus, rather than having to “fight it” or “push it away”. Mindfulness does not aim to change the tinnitus’s nature or sound, but the therapy can lead to it becoming less intrusive, to a point where it is no longer a problem for people.
“MBCT turns traditional tinnitus treatment on its head,” Marks said. “So rather than trying to avoid or mask the noise, it teaches people to stop the battle with tinnitus. "David Stockdale, chief executive of the BTA, said: “The results of this research are extremely encouraging, particularly for people with chronic tinnitus who find that current treatments are not working for them. We really hope that more people will be able to benefit from this approach moving forward.”
The researchers are now developing their work to see whether MBCT can be used to treat tinnitus-related insomnia.
“The mindfulness approach is radically different from what most tinnitus sufferers have tried before, and it may not be right for everyone,” Marks said. “We are confident, however, that the growing research base has demonstrated how it can offer an exciting new treatment to people who may have found that traditional treatment has not been able to help them yet. We hope the results of our research will be one of the first steps to MBCT becoming more widely adopted.”