Jacquelyn Lovitt, an audiologist at Capital Institute of Hearing and Balance in Silver Spring, Maryland, explained that choosing a hearing aid for tinnitus is best done with the guidance of an audiologist.
Prescription vs. OTC hearing aids
A hearing professional can help guide you to a prescription hearing device that best meets your needs for hearing and tinnitus management. But is it necessary to buy a prescription hearing aid if you have tinnitus?
Prescription devices do have some advantages compared to over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids, particularly when it comes to the following four points:
1. Sound processing
The more channels a hearing aid has, the more intricately it can divide sound frequencies for processing (which includes both analyzing and amplifying the sound). Splitting frequencies into more channels means they can be reproduced more accurately and with less distortion, so you get a listening experience that’s closer to the way your ears naturally process sound. Pricier devices, (usually prescription hearing aids), will come with more channels than lower-priced models.
Another sound-processing function that’s hard to find in OTC hearing aids is artificial intelligence (AI) ⓘA technology that enables computers and other digital devices to solve problems and learn from experience, tasks that are normally associated with human intelligence.. Many prescription hearing aids today use this technology to “teach” the hearing aid to recognize common sounds in your environment.
When you wear AI-powered hearing aids consistently, they will eventually learn which sounds to amplify and which to ignore or suppress. This can make it easier to hear and understand everything in your world, which in turn can lower your stress levels and even help with fatigue, thereby lowering the impact of tinnitus.12
Some OTC hearing aids, such as Sontro hearing aids, come in an AI-powered model. Prescription hearing aids that incorporate AI technology include:
2. Automatic adjustments
Prescription hearing aids also come standard with the ability to automatically adjust as you move from one sound environment to another. When you’re hearing tinnitus sounds constantly, the best sound amplification for each environment can be especially important.
A few OTC brands make devices with an auto-adjust feature, including Eargo and Audicus, but you’ll have to pay more for the models that include this feature.
Prescription hearing aids are designed with software your hearing care professional uses to program the devices to your exact hearing loss profile. They can also make dozens of fine adjustments to the sound frequencies at which you’re experiencing tinnitus. This can make a notable difference in how well the hearing aids treat your tinnitus.
OTC hearing aids, on the other hand, are meant to be used right out of the box without assistance from a hearing professional. Most have preset listening profiles to choose from that help the majority of people with hearing loss.
Self-fitting OTC hearing aids allow users to fine-tune each listening profile or take a hearing screening using an app. The app will then adjust the hearing aid settings to your hearing screening results.21 But a hearing screening isn’t a full hearing exam, and the adjustments made by the hearing aid aren’t as precise as the sophisticated programming a hearing specialist can provide.
OTC hearing aids can still help tinnitus in many cases, but it’s good to know the technical differences between the OTC and prescription categories to help you decide which type is best for you. Any reputable hearing aid company will give you a risk-free trial period of at least 30 days. During this time, you can try your hearing aids and return them for a refund if they aren’t helping your hearing loss and/or tinnitus.
If a hearing aid company or clinic says they don’t offer a trial period, it’s wise to take your business elsewhere. Read our article on how to avoid OTC hearing aid scams for more tips on finding trustworthy hearing aid suppliers.
4. In-person support
Prescription hearing aids, as mentioned above, are meant to be programmed by a hearing professional. This service can be performed remotely, but the initial programming should be done in person to check your hearing and to ensure the correct physical fit.
OTC hearing aids either come with no support at all after your purchase or only offer remote audiology assistance for adjustments. While this can be sufficient for many people, having both tinnitus and hearing loss presents more complex listening needs compared to someone who has hearing loss without tinnitus.
You may find the personal care provided at a hearing care clinic sets you up for success in treating your hearing needs and dealing with tinnitus. And many hearing care clinics offer one to three years of free support—including cleanings, maintenance, and adjustments—with each hearing aid purchase.
The points above all contribute to the higher price tag found on many prescription hearing aids compared to OTC brands. But if the extra expense isn’t in your budget, some OTC hearing aids can be tailored to help with tinnitus symptoms.
If you’re 18 years or older and have mild or moderate hearing loss, you may be a candidate for OTC hearing aids. They can cost thousands of dollars less than prescription devices, but keep in mind that to treat tinnitus symptoms, the most budget-friendly hearing aids probably won’t offer what you need.
Let’s take a look at hearing aid features that can help with tinnitus and which brands offer models with those features.