Can Noise Canceling Headphones Help Tinnitus Sufferers?

by Josh Koop | Last Updated:   2 weeks ago
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Everyone loves a good pair of noise cancelling headphones. They make your favorite music sound better and richer blocking out any external noise. Now, there is a But, does noise cancelling headphones help with tinnitus? 

People with tinnitus have to suffer from a constant ringing sound in their eardrums and that can get quite annoying at times. Not only it disrupts their day-to-day life but also destroys their mental peace. For many, noise cancelling headphones has been a godsend to help them battle tinnitus while for others, not so much. 

Lack of proper scientific evaluations has led to several different speculations regarding noise cancelling headphones and tinnitus. So, let’s take a look at some of the general speculations to see how noise cancelling headphones and tinnitus might be related to one other. 

What Is Tinnitus? 

If you have ever experienced schizophrenia or know of it, you should understand the concept of tinnitus as well. Just like people see or hear random stuff while in a schizophrenic phase, people with tinnitus hear a constant ringing sound instead. This sound is not caused by any specific outside source rather it’s produced due to the damage in the inner ears.

Most people who have had tinnitus describe it as a low humming or murmuring sound that’s constant irrespective of the situation. 

It can develop due to several reasons – most prominent of which are underlying medical issues and ear injuries. It can also happen if someone experiences loud noise for a long time. Furthermore, deep psychological traumas have been known to elevate the effect of tinnitus over time. 

According to a study performed by the National Study of Hearing in England, tinnitus is prevalent in about 10.1% of the adult population. 

And so far, researches have led to only causes and effects of tinnitus, but no permanent solution to this nuisance. Under such circumstances, many people speculate that noise cancelling headphones can provide temporary relief by tuning out tinnitus noises. But how logical is this claim? 

Does Noise Cancelling Headphones Help with Tinnitus? 

To tackle any problem, you need to find out where and why the problem occurs. Similarly, your solution needs to be on the same spectrum as your problem in order to battle it.

The only way noise cancelling headphones can help resolve tinnitus is if they can somehow medically treat the damages in your inner ear. And that’s simply not how noise cancelling headphones work. 

So, theoretically, noise cancelling headphones shouldn’t have any relevance to any sort of tinnitus problems. 

However, since multiple people have claimed that noise cancelling headphones helped with their tinnitus, or at least minimized it, there must be a correlation between these two. Here are a few ways how I personally think that noise cancelling headphones help with tinnitus: 

By actively minimizing the overall noise

According to Wikipedia, noise cancelling headphones use the effect of active and passive noise control to minimize the surrounding sound. In active noise cancellation, a physical covering is used to muffle the background noises.

On the other hand, in passive noise cancellation, the headset picks up on the frequency of the surrounding sound to cancel it out. 

To realize it better, think of two opposing waves. If they are of similar magnitude but act in opposite directions, they will just cancel each other out without further effect.

This is how PNC headphones isolate a noise that’s constant in the background, creates an opposing frequency and then mechanically blocks the humming sound out.

By now, you have probably already realized why noise cancelling headphones theoretically shouldn’t help with tinnitus. In tinnitus, the sounds do not originate from an external source. So, how can noise cancelling headphones pick up the frequency of a sound that doesn’t physically exist? 

There’s an ongoing theory that the tinnitus sounds may not come from outside, but they do mimic the sounds you have heard previously at some point.

Therefore, noise cancelling headphones can restrict your brain from picking up these background noises subconsciously. And by doing so, they gradually reduce the effect of tinnitus. 

By inducing a placebo effect of noise cancellation 

A placebo effect takes place when someone shows an improvement of symptoms in a non-logical treatment. Basically, the brain tricks itself to believe something that isn’t otherwise true.

Multiple theorists speculate that, as most people inherently have no idea how tinnitus works, NC headphones can create a placebo effect in them to minimize tinnitus. 

It’s quite simple, really. When you put the noise cancelling headphones on, the reverse psychological effect can lead you to believe that all sorts of background noises have diminished.

As a result, even though only the external sounds have been minimized, your brain puts two and two together and gets rid of the internal murmuring as well. 

Can Noise Cancelling Headphones Aggravate Tinnitus?

As mentioned above, tinnitus isn’t inherently a physical problem as it is psychological. Even though it originates due to hearing accidents or disorders, excess stress, depression or anxiety can worsen this condition.

The cause or progression isn’t the same for everyone and neither does everyone experience it similarly. 

That’s why, while a lot of people have shared their positive experiences with NC headphones regarding tinnitus, there have been backlashes too.

Quite a number of people experienced heightened discomfort after using NC headphones to help with tinnitus. So, if the question is, do noise cancelling headphones aggravate tinnitus, the answer is yes. 

Here are a few possible reasons as to why that might happen.

The abnormal becomes the new normal

If you have been suffering from tinnitus for a long time, there’s a possibility that you are used to the extra noises in your ear. It’s annoying, yes, but the abnormality becomes a sort of the new normal.

Under such circumstances, if you suddenly try out noise cancelling headphones, your subconscious cannot cope with it immediately. 

Since it’s not accustomed to the lack of constant ringing, it can create a sort of imbalance in your ears. Such imbalance is often similar to the effects of motion sickness.

That’s why, sometimes people may feel extreme discomfort instead of relaxation when they use NC headphones to treat tinnitus. 

Heightened Senses

This concept is similar to the concept of loudspeakers in a noisy environment. The noisier of an environment you are in, the more you feel the need to increase the sound of your headphones to listen to something. And eventually, long-term exposure to such arrangements can lead to the development of tinnitus.

In fact, people with mild tinnitus sometimes don’t even realize that they have it if they are constantly in a noisy place. So, in such cases, if someone were to suddenly use noise cancelling headphones, it could do more harm than good.

As there is no background noise to drown out the internal murmurs, it’s much more difficult to ignore the sounds. And once the realization hits, it’s almost impossible to stop focusing on it and that can lead to several neurological disorders later on.

The best way to make sure this doesn’t happen is to keep tabs on your physical and mental health regularly. Read up on the Healthline guidelines to see if you suffer from any tinnitus syndromes and if you find any, get yourself checked out as soon as possible. 

Conclusion 

So, does noise cancelling headphones help with tinnitus? Depending on how tinnitus affects you physically and psychologically, the answer swings both ways.

But since the positive responses outrun the negative ones, you should give the NC headphones a try before you reject them. With proper precautions and guidance, they can prove to be a blessing for your tinnitus. 

Thanks for reading. I really hope this article was informative enough to answer all of your queries. Until next time, farewell.