Can Massage Therapy Alleviate Tinnitus Symptoms?

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Woman getting a neck massage for tinnitus relief

Massages are almost always synonymous with relaxation–something that many tinnitus sufferers are looking for. After all, tinnitus can lead to feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression, and leave those with the condition in dire need of rest and relaxation. Anxiety and stress are both linked to decreased quality of life, impaired sleep, and a greater propensity to develop additional mental health concerns and even physical complaints. If massages can help with stress and anxiety, is it possible they can assist with tinnitus symptoms? We’ll examine whether or not massage can be used to increase a sense of well-being and diminish some of the more troublesome aspects of tinnitus.

What Is Tinnitus

First, let’s take a closer look at tinnitus–what it is, and how it affects people worldwide. Tinnitus, or the perception of sounds in the ears or head that exist without an external cause of the sound or external sound source, has also been called a condition of phantom sounds. It can be caused by a multitude of things, ranging from persistent infections in the ear to congenital ear conditions, to head or neck injury. While it may not be talked about as a common concern, tinnitus is estimated to affect up to 25% of Americans, with varying degrees of severity.

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Different types of tinnitus will respond to different types of treatment. Neck exercises that address injury can help manage tinnitus that has started as a response to neck injury. Hearing aids can be used to address hearing loss derived tinnitus. The precise type of tinnitus being presented will determine the precise nature of symptoms and treatment options.

Tinnitus Symptoms

Although tinnitus is frequently described as a ringing sound, it can also sound like buzzing, hissing, clicking, or whooshing. Tinnitus is not a condition in and of itself, however; it is instead an indication that the auditory system is not functioning properly as a result of another condition or issue. From something as simple as poor posture and subsequent neck, head, or spine issues, to something as complex as damage to the hair cells in the inner ear, tinnitus can be in one ear or both ears, loud or quiet, chronic or acute, and intermittent or constant.

Bear in mind that this is a highly unique disorder, and no two patients present exactly the same; instead, some patients might describe different sounds or triggers, or even durations of hearing phantom sounds. The common thread, regardless of the exact sound heard or the duration of sounds, is the presence of a phantom sound, or a sound that cannot be accounted for with any external force. The negative experiences reported by those with the condition can even vary, with a large portion of the population reporting no serious adverse health effects following tinnitus onset.

Common Causes Of Tinnitus

Woman with a head injury holding her head after wrapping it with a bandage

Hearing loss, infection, head and neck injury, illness, loud noise exposure, aging, hypertension, diabetes, kidney function, and more can all lead to the onset of tinnitus. Although some of these issues can be addressed using pressure from index fingers and a tennis ball–particularly when simple muscle tightness is a primary issue–treating tinnitus is typically a more involved affair than a simple neck massage using your own index finger or middle fingers.

Treating Tinnitus

Because tinnitus results from a complex host of possible conditions and injuries, a doctor does not typically recommend a singular course of treatment or a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment. Instead, a doctor will typically recommend a multi-pronged approach . This usually includes the following:

  • A physician’s assessment. This will be used to rule out, diagnose, and treat any underlying medical conditions that may contribute to the onset of tinnitus.
  • A visit with an audiologist or otolaryngologist (ENT doctor). These healthcare professionals can conduct a full otologic or audiological evaluation to diagnose any underlying ear disorder or hearing loss that needs to be addressed.

Once these assessments have been completed, a healthcare professional can develop a robust intervention plan for tinnitus patients. The more common treatments for tinnitus include:

  • Surgical or medical interventions for conductive hearing loss or middle ear dysfunction.
  • Hearing aids, to address underlying hearing loss or restore any missing auditory input to the brain in order to reduce tinnitus symptom onset or worsening.
  • Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT), to address tinnitus using both sound therapy and counseling to come at tinnitus from different angles.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), to look into any mental health concerns that have come as a result of the sensations or sounds plaguing the body.
  • Sound therapy, to help reduce the sound of tinnitus and decrease its intensity day to day.

Tinnitus often involves some form of one or all of these types of intervention. While there is not currently a cure, procedure, or even a specific medication designed to rid tinnitus patients of their symptoms, quality of life can be improved when one or many of these interventions are used to ease some of the discomfort experienced in the ears and muscles of the skull, neck and shoulders.

How Muscle Tension Is Related To Tinnitus

As stated above, a multi-armed approach to treating tinnitus works best, and patients typically seek additional relaxation methods in addition to the more traditional treatment approaches identified above. Massage is one of the many ways people address pain and tense feelings in the body, which can have a positive impact on tinnitus.

How The Upper Cervical Spine Affects Tinnitus

Man with neck pain holding the back of his neck

Although there is not a great deal of research evaluating the role of compression or injury of the upper cervical spine or tense muscles in the surrounding area, both have been suggested as possible root causes of tinnitus. Cervicogenic tinnitus, for instance, is believed to be caused by a disruption of nerve signals due to neck injury or dysfunction within the upper cervical spine. In the case of injury to this area, tinnitus treatment will likely focus less on standard interventions and more on intervention to address the spine and heal the nerve signals thought to be the origin of tinnitus sounds.

This is where massage comes in: massage can help alleviate tinnitus in this particular patient population by relieving tense muscle tissue in the neck and increasing blood flow. When bodies are at rest, the factors leading to tinnitus may no longer pose as great an issue, and people may experience relief from their tinnitus.

Somatosensory Tinnitus

This particular condition is caused by tense muscle tissue in the neck, face, and jaw. Characterized by changes to the loudness, pitch, or localization of sounds when stimulated, somatosensory tinnitus is best addressed with a multifaceted approach that targets musculature through a range of movements and therapeutic intervention. Typically, issues with the head, neck, or jaw are at the root of this hearing condition, rather than issues with the ear itself. Massage can help alleviate phantom sounds by reducing tightness around the neck, face, and jaw in order to promote relaxation and rest within the tissues.

Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction

Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction (also called TMJ disorder or dysfunction) is typically characterized by pain in the mouth, including tense muscles near the jaw and pain in and around the mouth. The muscle groups surrounding the jaw are affected by this condition because of bruxism (teeth grinding) and lockjaw, both of which are common to TMJ dysfunction. By massaging around the jaw joint, along the jaw bone near the teeth, and around the face where pain is felt, individuals with TMJ dysfunction and tinnitus may experience a reduction in tinnitus symptoms, and may even find that it helps reduce tension in the jaw overall.

How Massage Can Help With Ringing In The Ears

Woman getting a neck massage to relieve tinnitus pain

Massage can help with a range of conditions. Although the simple act of moving fingers and palms over skin to massage and stimulate muscle tissue may not initially seem to have a particularly significant impact on health, from jaw muscles to ear conditions, massage can be extremely useful to support health and improve quality of life. Massage is designed to relieve tension and promote relaxation–both of which can positively impact the sensation of phantom sounds and other conditions associated with both hearing loss and anxiety or stress.

The first step in utilizing massage for health is finding a massage therapist who is licensed and trained to understand this particular condition in order to provide a massage therapy session that is able to address specific muscles in the neck, jaw, and upper back that have been linked to phantom sounds. While massage therapy in general is wonderful, there are specific areas that can benefit individuals with tinnitus. Massage is not a tinnitus treatment in and of itself, but it can be a wonderful addition to a multidisciplinary approach to address phantom sounds, to make sure all bases are covered, and all potential contributors to the issue are properly considered and addressed. 

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