There is no universal treatment for tinnitus, but there are some ways to get relief from your symptoms. From cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to sensory distractions, treatments vary for person to person, with different options working better for some than others.
Recent research has shown that wearing ear plugs and earbuds could alleviate the symptoms of tinnitus, while others have reported tinnitus-like symptoms from prolonged use of such devices. This article further explores the link between ear plugs or earbuds and tinnitus, to give a deeper understanding of whether they can be helpful.

Can ear plugs cause tinnitus?

Ear plugs cannot cause someone to develop tinnitus, although they can sometimes cause people to experience temporary tinnitus-like symptoms.

Traditional noise-cancelling ear plugs are made from a pliable material that can be inserted in the outer ear lobe to help block out external sound. They’re a popular solution for people who need help falling asleep, or who require protection from noisy work environments.

However, while useful for hearing protection, they have also been found to simulate short-term tinnitus symptoms with prolonged use.2,3 A study from the University of Manchester found that ear plugs worn by people who don’t suffer from tinnitus created a ‘simulated hearing loss’ because they produced the experience of phantom ringing sounds.1 However, this sensation disappeared as soon as the ear plugs were removed.

For people who already experience tinnitus, ear plugs may exaggerate the ringing sensation in your ears. This is because they block all external noise by acting as a physical barrier which, in turn, strengthens the underlying ringing sound that was previously drowned out. This can make it seem like your symptoms have worsened, however it’s important to remember that this is not permanent, and the heightened ringing should subside after the ear plugs are removed. 

Ear plugs can also push earwax further inside the ear canal, which in turn can cause impacted earwax, leading to tinnitus. It’s worth mentioning that tinnitus symptoms usually ease once impacted wax is removed.

Can ear plugs help tinnitus?

Some types of ear plugs can help to ease tinnitus symptoms.

If you have tinnitus, it’s important that you’re taking extra care to protect your hearing. So, if your tinnitus occurs due to triggers from loud noises (eg construction, traffic or music), noise-cancelling ear plugs may help to alleviate your symptoms, while offering some added protection against damage. 

Specialised musician’s ear plugs (high-fidelity ear plugs) can also be used by people with tinnitus who want to protect their hearing, without completely blocking out external sound. High-fidelity ear plugs have an acoustic filter — interchangeable for different sound environments — to fine-tune sound frequency. These custom-made ear plugs can help to prevent the trigger or tinnitus symptoms by reducing sound levels without distorting it.

Can earbuds or earphones ease tinnitus symptoms?

Certain types of noise-cancelling earbuds can offer some relief from tinnitus symptoms. Noise-cancelling earbuds are different from ear plugs. Earbuds are headphones that you can insert into the ear canal. They often have noise-cancelling and noise-isolating properties, protecting the ear from neural damage, which can be helpful if you suffer from tinnitus. They can help to tune out the noise effectively, which can be especially useful if you’re in a loud environment or listening to booming music.4,5

There are a few different types of earbud available:

  • Noise cancelling earbuds have built-in microphones. The incoming sound is captured and then transformed to match the external sound frequency, removing the phantom sounds.
  • Noise isolating earbuds stop the external noise by working as a physical barrier within the ear canal
  • ADEL (Ambrose Diaphonic Ear Lens) earbuds use newer technology to balance out the pressure caused by sound in the ear canal. The user receives a high-quality sound at a fraction of the volume level needed from normal earbuds.   
  • Bone conduction headphones transmit sound to the inner ear by creating vibrations on the bones. This headphone is useful for the hearing impaired and can also mask background noises for those with tinnitus.

At the same time, some people with tinnitus feel that any blocking of their ears can make their symptoms worse. In this case, some research is needed to determine whether earplug or earbuds might be the right option for you.

Relief from tinnitus symptoms

Tinnitus can be all-consuming, with some people experiencing a lack of concentration, lack of sleep, fatigue, and frustration as a result. If you or your loved one have any questions about easing your tinnitus symptoms, it’s important to contact your GP, or you can speak to your local audiologist for advice. It might be something as simple as impacted earwax causing your condition, which our audiologists can easily remove in store. 

Visit our Tinnitus Hub to learn about other types of tinnitus treatments or call your nearest Specsavers store to discuss further with an expert audiologist.

All things tinnitus
A guide to earplugs
Hearing loss information hub
References

1. Schaette R, Turtle C, Munro KJ. Reversible induction of phantom auditory sensations through simulated unilateral hearing loss.  2012;7(6):e35238. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0035238. Epub 2012 Jun 4. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22675466/# [accessed Jan 2021]

2. Kraaijenga VJ, Ramakers GG, Grolman W. The Effect of Ear plugs in Preventing Hearing Loss From Recreational Noise Exposure: A Systematic Review. JAMA Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2016 Apr;142(4):389-94. doi: 10.1001/jamaoto.2015.3667. PMID: 26940158.

3. Ramakers GG, Kraaijenga VJ, Cattani G, van Zanten GA, Grolman W. Effectiveness of Ear plugs in Preventing Recreational Noise-Induced Hearing Loss: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2016 Jun 1;142(6):551-8. doi: 10.1001/jamaoto.2016.0225. PMID: 27054284.

4. Rauschecker JP, Leaver AM, Mühlau M. Tuning out the noise: limbic-auditory interactions in tinnitus. Neuron. 2010 Jun 24;66(6):819-26. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2010.04.032. PMID: 20620868; PMCID: PMC2904345.

5. Śliwińska-Kowalska M, Zaborowski K. WHO Environmental Noise Guidelines for the European Region: A Systematic Review on Environmental Noise and Permanent Hearing Loss and Tinnitus. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017 Sep 27;14(10):1139. doi: 10.3390/ijerph14101139. PMID: 28953238; PMCID: PMC5664640.