Hearing Aids Mask The Buzz Of Tinnitus

Exes back in business together to help others hear their best.

Dr. Anastasia Knoblach

After traditional masking attempts failed to relieve her of the constant buzzing in her ears, a condition known as tinnitus, audiologist Anastasia Knoblach finally found relief from a most unlikely source: her past.

Tinnitus is the perception of sound when there’s no external source. The condition is often described as “ringing in the ears,” but it can also come in the form of hissing, whistling, roaring, pulsing, screeching, swooshing or a strong buzz as it does with Dr. Knoblach.

“My tinnitus sounds like cicadas buzzing incessantly,” Dr. Knoblach describes. “It interfered with my hearing, interrupted my concentration and affected my sleep. It was extremely frustrating because it was there all the time, day and night, every day.

“I tried to ignore my tinnitus while I looked for treatment options, specifically tinnitus masking. But it seemed the more I subjected my ears to different masking stimuli, the more noticeable the tinnitus became. Then I started getting headaches. I was afraid I was going to have to live with that sound of cicadas for the rest of my life.”

Tinnitus masking is a feature available in some hearing instruments that replaces the annoying ringing or buzzing with a more pleasing sound. The aim of masking is that both the tinnitus and the masking sound will be relegated to the background of the patient’s attention, providing relief from the constant noise.

When traditional tinnitus maskers failed, Dr. Knoblach grew discouraged. But then she discovered an effective solution in a previous life.

“It seemed wherever I worked, there were copies of Florida Health Care News in the lobby,” Dr. Knoblach observes. “Every now and then I’d pick up a copy, only to find my ex-husband’s latest success story right there on the cover. And yes, we used to work together too.”
Dean Knoblach, BC-HIS, is a board-certified hearing instrument specialist at Knoblach Hearing Care in Largo.

The Knoblachs married in 2001 but parted ways after living and working together for 10 years. They’ve been divorced nearly 12 years “It felt too awkward to ask my ex-husband for help with something I should be able to correct myself,” Dr. Knoblach admits. “Then one day, while discussing our daughter, Dean started rambling on about some hearing instrument he fixed. I probably just wanted him to stop talking, but it came out as an abrupt, I bet you can’t fix mine. And that’s what started us talking about all the challenges I was experiencing.”

A Sensorineural Reaction

Tinnitus is not a disease, Dean stresses. Rather, it is the symptom of an underlying condition. While genetics and medications can sometimes be the culprit, most often the cause is an acoustic trauma to the auditory nerve.

In these cases, the patient was subjected to sound waves so intense that the cilia (tiny hair cells in the auditory nerve) were literally pushed into each other, creating the continuous signal of a frequency to be transmitted the brain.

“This is evident to anyone that has discharged a firearm without ear protection,” Dean describes.

The result is immediate tinnitus combined with temporary hearing loss. Though the symptoms usually subside in a few minutes, if the intense sounds become repeated through routine exposure, the auditory nerve can become permanently damaged, producing a never-ending stream of sound at that frequency.

“That constant sound is tinnitus, and it is frustrating,” Dean says. “It is like having a 500-pound gorilla constantly putting its hand in front of your face. You can live with it for a while. But after a while, you start thinking, Can I just get a break from this?”
Custom hearing instruments with properly tuned tinnitus maskers give Dr. Knoblach that break.

“I put them in and about 20 seconds later my cicada bugs are turned into clear speech with a very light breeze in the background,” she reports.

Several hearing aid manufacturers carry some type of masking feature in their high-end models, but while some carry just one or two options for masking, others carry over a dozen, with abilities to stream endless options from the internet.

“It is our job at Knoblach Hearing Care to determine what combination of particular technology and unique programming is necessary to properly address each individual’s needs,” Dean asserts. “There is never one model that works for all, but with the right technology and proper settings, most cases are correctable.”

Rectifying the problem is essential for safeguarding patients’ mental and emotional health, Dean adds. Chronic tinnitus sufferers can experience severe complications such as anxiety, insomnia and even severe depression.

The “Art” of Sound

By the time Dr. Knoblach turned to her ex-husband for help, the tinnitus had her feeling anxious and depressed, and it was disrupting her sleep. Dean was determined to fix what Dr. Knoblach couldn’t.

“She may have a doctorate in what we do, but I work in the trenches of producing results on a daily basis,” Dean says. “I tried several unique sounds before discovering one that covered up Dr. Knoblach’s tinnitus. The one that finally worked was Brownian noise, named after Robert Brown, a 19th century Scottish botanist who first discovered a certain kind of random microscopic motion in nature now referred to as Brownian motion.”

Examples in nature can be found in thunderstorms, waterfalls or heavy rain. Random sounds that many find comforting and soothing.

“I felt hope because for the first time in years I didn’t hear that buzzing sound,” Dr. Knoblach relates. “But the masking sound used to cover it was so loud that it sounded like a hurricane. I thought, Great, this is worse yet!

Dean quickly fixed that problem.

“Frequency by frequency Dean removed parts of the Brownian Noise, eventually leaving only the parts that covered up my incessant buzzing,” Dr. Knoblach notes. “After that, the frustrating buzzing was replaced by the sound of a light breeze, which eventually sounded as natural as living by a beach.”

As Dr. Knoblach’s case shows, tinnitus masking is something of an art form. Dean likens it to an artist painting natural looking camouflage over a canvas of sharp intense colors.

“It is the art of covering up an unpleasant sound with a much more soothing one, then reducing that until it’s barely noticeable,” Dean says. “People may think the masking sound must be louder than the original tinnitus sound it is covering up, but that’s not the case.

“The masking sound just has to be different – different and pleasant to the patient. Attractive and soft enough to be soothing and comfortable, yet strong enough at just the right pitch to effectively cover up the tinnitus.

“No matter which masking sound is found to be most effective, once the sound is programmed into the hearing device, the patient can simply wear the device and instantly hear better with no noticeable tinnitus. Some models are the size of a pencil eraser and can be comfortably worn all night.”

Career Change

“The frustrating buzzing was replaced by the sound of a light breeze, which eventually sounded as natural as living by a beach.” – Dr. Anastasia Knoblach

Dr. Knoblach reports that her treatment at Knoblach Hearing Care has been incredibly successful. As long as she wears the devices, she no longer hears the buzzing cicadas. It’s a thrilling outcome for her.

“Masking out the incessant, nagging sound of tinnitus can change a person’s entire outlook on life,” she enthuses. “It certainly did for me. I was amazed. I thought for a long time that it couldn’t be done. What Dean accomplished was nothing shy of liberating for me. Now, I feel normal again.

“And Dean was so nice. It was the first time we spent any real time together in 12 years. I thought it would be awkward, but it wasn’t at all. On my follow up appointment, Dean gave me a tour of the whole practice, and I was amazed to see all the changes he made over the years. Somewhere between the sound studios and repair lab I joked, Got any openings around here? I was shocked to hear Dean say his staff specialist recently retired and he was looking for a replacement.

Now, with over 60 years combined experience Dean and Anastasia once again provide a wide array of services to the hearing impaired community.

© FHCN staff article. Photos by Jordan Pysz. mkb
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