From Drummer to Audiologist: Dr. Suzanne’s Journey with Tinnitus

Image of Dr. Suzanne May

Today we will explore the story of Dr. Suzanne May, an accomplished audiologist with 18 years of experience specializing in tinnitus management. Dr. Suzanne not only brings her wealth of professional expertise to the table but also her personal experience as someone living with tinnitus.

With Dr. Ben Thompson interviewing her, she will share her experiences with tinnitus and offer valuable insights and perspectives on effectively managing and coping with this condition.

Dr. May’s Journey

Dr. Suzanne earned her Doctor of Audiology degree from the University of Florida and has since worked in various roles, including manufacturing of devices and clinical work at the Veteran’s Hospital. 

She has spent most of her career at a major hospital in Sacramento, California, and has presented educational seminars to physicians on hearing loss and tinnitus. In 2022, Dr. Suzanne joined the team at Treble Health, further expanding their telehealth services for tinnitus patients.

"Treble Health helped me reduce my tinnitus by about 80%, and now I can live my life again!"
"Treble Health helped me reduce my tinnitus by about 80%, and now I can live my life again!"
– Steve D.
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Board-certified in Tinnitus Management by the American Board of Audiology, Dr. Suzanne also holds a certificate in Progressive Tinnitus Management from the Veterans Hospital. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Audiology and a subject matter expert for the State of California license board.

Dr. Suzanne’s journey with tinnitus began in her 20s when noise exposure from playing drums in a band led to the development of a low-level hum. Following a head injury three years ago, her tinnitus significantly increased in volume. Through a combination of tinnitus retraining therapy, sound therapy, and holistic approaches, she managed to reduce her tinnitus to a more manageable level.

The Path To Healing

The first few months of living with her tinnitus were complicated. As an audiologist, she knew what to do, but putting that into practice and going through the retraining process proved to be a different experience altogether.

Dr. Suzanne explained that during the initial period, she was in a fight or flight mode, constantly aware of the tinnitus at the forefront of her mind. This phase is often the most difficult part of the habituation process. 

woman typing on a laptop

To overcome this, she worked with a counselor and sought help from Treble Health to break the emotional loop cycle. Sound therapy also played a significant role in her progress, using a wearable device that emitted white noise to keep her ear occupied and distract her from the tinnitus.

Over 16 months, Dr. Suzanne was able to reduce her tinnitus to a more manageable level. She noticed changes in her progress and sound therapy’s role in her recovery. She discovered that sound therapy from devices like tinnitus maskers or hearing aids had different effects than that from consumer electronics.

Dr. Suzanne found that she initially needed a wearable device to provide sound therapy at all times, especially when working in a busy hospital setting. However, as she progressed, she realized she no longer needed sound therapy constantly. She chose a hearing aid without amplification since she didn’t have hearing loss, but with a white noise and pink noise generator for her sound therapy needs.

Dr. Ben Thompson inquired about the changes in Dr. Suzanne tinnitus loudness over the 16 months of her journey, and she described her tinnitus as sounding like a jet engine in her head during its worse times, with staticky, buzzy noises. 

Throughout the process, her tinnitus changed, and she experienced fluctuations in loudness. She referred to these fluctuations as “bunny hops” — days when her tinnitus would be worse, followed by days when it would be better. The key was to focus on the overall improvement and not get discouraged by the occasional bad days.

Even as a professional in the field, Dr. Suzanne emphasized that there was no way to expedite the tinnitus management process. She likened it to the healing process for any other injury, which takes time and patience.

When asked about the hardest challenges she faced due to her tinnitus, Dr. Suzanne identified sleep as one of the most significant issues. To cope, she developed a sleep hygiene strategy, which included using a sound machine that she still relies on today.

In addition to sleep disturbances, she experienced anxiety and depression due to her tinnitus. She stressed the importance of reaching out to professionals, loved ones, and establishing a support system during difficult times. Utilizing all available resources was crucial in helping her navigate the challenges brought on by tinnitus.

Habituation And Tinnitus Management

The journey to habituation and tinnitus management can be challenging, requiring a combination of retraining, counseling, and neuroplasticity coaching. The average time frame for this process is nine to 12 months, although each case is unique and can vary significantly.

A crucial component of successful tinnitus management is finding the right support system. Professionals like the experienced audiologists at Treble Health provide comprehensive telehealth services, guiding patients through their habituation process and adjusting treatment plans according to individual needs. This personalized approach ensures that patients receive the right combination of sound therapy, counseling, and coping strategies to manage their tinnitus effectively.

The ultimate goal of this process is to help patients reach a point where they can manage their tinnitus independently. Dr. Suzanne shares inspiring stories of patients who have graduated from the program, demonstrating that with the right guidance, individuals can learn to ignore their tinnitus and regain control over their lives. 

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Medical tests ultimately play a crucial role in diagnosing and understanding the underlying cause of tinnitus. These tests can include hearing tests, OAE (otoacoustic emissions) tests to check the outer hair cells of the hearing organ, MRIs, and evaluations for neck and jaw issues. These tests help rule out any medical causes and guide the patient toward appropriate treatment if needed.

Dr. Thompson emphasizes that primary care physicians may not always know the specific tests required for tinnitus patients. In some cases, ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists can take the lead, but audiologists and psychologists may be left to pick up the pieces. As both suggest, audiologists specializing in tinnitus are best suited to guide patients through the process.

Audiologists are experts in hearing and balance disorders, and those specializing in tinnitus are well-equipped to navigate the complexities of this condition. They can help patients make sense of medical reports, such as MRI results, dental exams, and evaluations of the neck and jaw. Audiologists can identify the cause of tinnitus by gathering all the relevant data and tailoring the treatment accordingly.

A successful tinnitus treatment plan often involves a multidisciplinary approach that includes various healthcare professionals. Physicians, ENT specialists, audiologists, psychologists, osteopaths, and chiropractors can all contribute to identifying the cause of tinnitus and providing appropriate care.

According to Dr. Suzanne, finding the cause of tinnitus is unnecessary to achieve habituation. Even without knowing the cause, patients can still benefit from tinnitus retraining therapy and sound therapy, which help the brain habituate and break the feedback loops associated with tinnitus and emotional responses. Thus, patients have hope and help, even if the cause remains unknown.

Dr. Suzanne tried several holistic techniques she found helpful. She also utilized tinnitus maskers, which are hearing aids programmed for tinnitus masking. 

A tinnitus masker is a small device that sits on top of the ear, with a tiny bud inside the ear canal. Unlike earplugs or headphones that block the ear, tinnitus maskers do not completely occlude the ear canal, allowing users to hear ambient sounds around them. According to Dr. Thompson, habituation to tinnitus is more effective when one can hear the surrounding environment.

Tinnitus maskers are hearing aids programmed for tinnitus management, not hearing loss. They provide sound therapy, such as white or pink noise, at a level softer than tinnitus to help the brain habituate to the sound. 

Dr. Suzanne believes most people with bothersome tinnitus could benefit from tinnitus maskers. However, affordability and personal preferences may lead some to explore alternative options like speakers or AirPods for sound therapy.

Telehealth And Hope

Telehealth has made tinnitus maskers more accessible and convenient for patients. Bluetooth-enabled devices can be connected to a patient’s smartphone, allowing audiologists like Dr. Suzanne to remotely program the tinnitus maskers based on a patient’s hearing test. This eliminates the need for patients to travel long distances for help and makes it easier for them to receive assistance whenever needed.

Telehealth solutions, like Treble Health, have made tinnitus care more accessible for patients. Waiting for a doctor’s appointment in a major hospital can be a significant barrier to timely tinnitus treatment. Treble Health offers free online consultations, allowing patients to speak with an expert without leaving their homes.

Early intervention is crucial for tinnitus care, as everything with the brain is easier to treat sooner rather than later. Providing access to telehealth services helps patients get the care they need as soon as possible, increasing their chances of success in habituation and retraining their brains.

Dr. Suzanne encourages people with tinnitus not to give up hope, regardless of how long they have been experiencing symptoms. There are always new tools and strategies to help manage tinnitus, and Treble Health aims to provide support and guidance for those in need. Reaching out for help and connecting with experts can make all the difference in the tinnitus journey.

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