Tinnitus, often described as ringing in the ears, is a common condition that affects an estimated 15-20% of people. For many, tinnitus symptoms are mild and tolerable, but for others, the persistent noises can cause significant distress and impact quality of life. There is currently no universal cure for tinnitus, so those who suffer often seek ways to manage their symptoms. One potential remedy that has gained attention is exercise.
What causes tinnitus?
Tinnitus is caused by damage or dysfunction in the auditory system, which includes the outer ear, inner ear, auditory nerve and brain regions associated with hearing and sound processing. Common causes include:
- Age-related hearing loss
- Exposure to loud noise
- Earwax blockages
- Ear bone changes
- Head or neck injuries
- Medications that are toxic to the ears
- Abnormal growths or blood vessel disorders
These issues lead to abnormalities in how sound signals are transmitted and processed between the ear and brain. The result is tinnitus – phantom noises like ringing, buzzing, roaring or hissing that an individual perceives in the absence of any external sound source.
How might exercise help with tinnitus?
While exercise does not address the root causes of tinnitus, research suggests it may provide some relief from tinnitus symptoms by producing several beneficial changes in the body and brain, including:
- Improved blood flow: Exercise promotes circulation, which optimizes blood flow to the ears and brain. This enhances oxygen and nutrient delivery to auditory structures and improves function.
- Changes in brain activity: Physical activity alters neurotransmitter levels and stimulates nerve cell growth in regions involved with hearing and sound processing. This may reduce abnormal neural activity linked to tinnitus perception.
- Stress relief: Exercise can reduce anxiety and depression, which often exacerbate tinnitus symptoms. This stress relief effect may indirectly lower focus on tinnitus noises.
- Distraction: Being physically active provides a degree of auditory and mental distraction from tinnitus noises.
- Improved sleep: Through reductions in stress and direct effects on sleep architecture, exercise may improve sleep quality, allowing the auditory system to recover and reset.
What does the research say?
A growing number of studies have investigated the effects of various exercise programs on tinnitus symptoms, often with promising results:
- A systematic review of 10 controlled trials found consistent evidence that various forms of aerobic exercise (e.g. walking, cycling) can provide tinnitus relief. Benefits were seen with both short and long-term exercise interventions.
- Multiple studies demonstrate that active yoga practice can help reduce perceived tinnitus loudness and annoyance. Improvements were correlated with reduced stress levels.
- Trials using deep neck muscle strengthening exercises have shown reduced tinnitus handicap and intensity ratings following daily exercise training for 1-2 months.
- Smaller investigations suggest tai chi, jaw muscle exercises, and even standard treadmill running may positively influence tinnitus symptoms to some degree.
While further research is still needed, these initial findings imply a potential therapeutic value of regular exercise for tinnitus that warrants consideration.
Table summarizing key findings on exercise for tinnitus
|Study||Exercise Intervention||Key Findings|
|Systematic review of 10 RCTs||Aerobic exercise (walking, cycling)||Consistent evidence for tinnitus symptom reduction with exercise|
|RCT with yoga practice||Twice weekly Hatha yoga sessions||Reduced tinnitus handicap and annoyance after 12 weeks|
|RCT on neck exercises||Daily neck muscle resistance training||Decreased tinnitus intensity and handicap ratings|
Are there limits to the benefits of exercise for tinnitus?
Despite the promising research, exercise appears unlikely to eliminate tinnitus or provide complete relief of symptoms for most patients. There are several factors that limit the benefits of exercise on tinnitus:
- Effects tend to be modest and vary greatly between individuals. Some experience little to no improvement.
- Gains are temporary without sustained exercise. Symptoms often return upon cessation of activity.
- Exercise benefits auditory pathways but does not address the underlying pathologies causing tinnitus.
- Chronic tinnitus may be accompanied by permanent changes in the nervous system that exercise cannot reverse.
- Strenuous exercise can sometimes worsen tinnitus due to effects on blood pressure and neck/jaw tension.
While unable to provide a cure, exercise may still represent an accessible way for many tinnitus patients to experience some control over their symptoms and improve their quality of life.
Increasing scientific evidence suggests various forms of exercise can offer meaningful relief from tinnitus symptoms for some patients. Through benefits like improved circulation, changes in brain activity, stress reduction and distraction, exercise may make tinnitus more tolerable and less intrusive on daily life. However, the variability of individual responses and inability to completely eliminate symptoms means exercise is likely just one piece of an effective tinnitus management plan rather than a definitive solution. Anyone exploring exercise as a tinnitus treatment should have realistic expectations about potential outcomes and work closely with their healthcare provider.