Can an App Improve Tinnitus?

woman wearing bluetooth headphones listening to app

Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • A mobile digital therapy app worked better at improving tinnitus than conventional treatment methods, according to a new clinical trial.
  • The mobile therapy is designed to teach the brain to defocus on noises only people with tinnitus can hear.
  • Using a digital phone app for tinnitus treatment may help in reducing the cost and travel time to visit a clinic and increase a person’s quality of life.

People with tinnitus may soon be able to silence the noises in their heads by downloading a phone app that trains the brain to unfocus on the sounds they’re hearing.

A new study published in Frontiers in Neurology reported the results of a mobile phone-based therapy trial where two-thirds of participants showed significant improvement in their tinnitus symptoms.

“For some people, it was more a case of the tinnitus sound becoming more innocuous and easier to ignore, but others actually reported experiencing silence for the first time in years,” Phil Sanders, PhD, an audiology research fellow at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and senior author of the study, told Verywell.

What Is Tinnitus?

Tinnitus happens when your head is filled with a phantom noise that can range from ringing to a whooshing sound. It is not a disease, but usually a symptom of damage or weakness in your auditory system. The sounds can be more distracting for some people than others.

About 45 million people living in the U.S. have tinnitus, and more than half regularly experience troublesome symptoms. An August 2022 study estimates about one to 14% of adults—740 million adults worldwide—experience tinnitus, with 2% having a severe version.

Some research and anecdotal evidence have pointed to the worsening of tinnitus after a COVID-19 infection. While the mechanism is still unclear, tinnitus is a very rare side effect of the COVID-19 vaccine.

While COVID-related cases means tinnitus is a growing health problem, there are no medications approved specifically for the condition. Existing drug options are limited and cater more towards alleviating the side effects of tinnitus, such as stress and headaches.

Sanders says mobile therapy is a convenient and affordable treatment option that directly gets to the root of the cause of tinnitus.

“We hope that this will help to break down barriers to seeking care and increase the reach these therapies have,” he said. “People won’t necessarily have to travel to a clinic to receive treatment and advice. This has implications for more equitable hearing health care.”

Prioritizing Individualized Treatment

Because everyone experiences tinnitus differently, it can be difficult to pinpoint a cause or move forward with a treatment plan.

“We haven’t been able to find an ‘off-switch’ in the brain that works for everyone,” Sanders said. “Our research and this digital therapeutic is really centered around tailoring the therapy based on the individual’s goals and characteristics.”

To conduct the study, the research team randomly assigned 61 people with tinnitus to either interact with a prototype of the new digital therapeutic app or a different app that produces white noise. White noise and other sound therapies are often used as short-term solutions to reduce the intensity of tinnitus, though their effectiveness remains up for debate.

How the App Works

Individuals assigned to the digital therapy group used Bluetooth bone conduction headphones and neck pillow speakers to engage in passive or active listening. Active listening sessions allowed for a sort of gameified experience, during which users would use a use a slider tool on their phone app to identify the location of a sound, or respond to prompts about sounds they were hearing.

The goal of the digital therapy was to train the brain not to focus on the tinnitus sound. As a result, tinnitus may become a forgettable background noise.

Participants underwent an initial evaluation from an audiologist, who created an individualized treatment plan based on the person’s tinnitus severity and duration.

At six weeks, 55% of people using the app showed improvement in tinnitus symptoms compared to 33% in the white noise group. After 12 weeks, 65% of people who used the mobile phone app training program reported a significant improvement in their tinnitus compared to the 43% improvement in the white noise group.

“I think the most surprising thing was to hear from some participants [was] that they actually experienced some periods of silence after using the therapeutic for a while,” Sanders said.

Since the trial was very small and only lasted for three months, Sanders said it’s difficult to say whether the therapy is a one-time intervention, used only when tinnitus becomes debilitating, or if it’s suitable for lifelong use. However, he speculates ‌it would vary from person to person.

While the mobile app therapy is not available to the public yet, Sanders and his team are working on creating more prototypes that will be tested in larger clinical trials. If all goes well, his team will work on getting FDA approval in a few years.

“Contrary to what many people hear when they first seek care, there are things you can do for your tinnitus if it’s a problem for you,” Sanders said. “We’re going to keep looking for ways to help different people. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach. As medicine moves towards a more personalized approach, we’re going to be doing that too.”

What This Means For You

There is no official cure for tinnitus, but options are available to tune out the ringing in your ears. The research team is planning the next stage of the clinical trial and will soon start recruiting more participants to try out the digital therapy app.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Tinnitus.

  3. American Tinnitus Association. Demographics.

  4. Jarach CM, Lugo A, Scala M, et al. Global prevalence and incidence of tinnitus: a systematic review and meta-analysisJAMA Neurol. Published online August 8, 2022. doi:10.1001/jamaneurol.2022.2189.

  5. Chirakkal P, Al Hail AN, Zada N, Vijayakumar DS. COVID-19 and tinnitus. Ear Nose Throat J. 2021;100(2_suppl):160S-162S. doi:10.1177/0145561320974849

  6. Attarha M, Bigelow J, Merzenich MM. Unintended consequences of white noise therapy for tinnitus—otolaryngology's cobra effect: a review. JAMA Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2018;144(10):938-943. doi:10.1001/jamaoto.2018.1856

By Jocelyn Solis-Moreira
Jocelyn Solis-Moreira is a journalist specializing in health and science news. She holds a Masters in Psychology concentrating on Behavioral Neuroscience.