In my blog, “Ringing in Ears Affects Fifty Million,” I gave you some background and some startling statistics about tinnitus, commonly referred to as ringing in the ears. I also stated that, currently, there is no cure. This is frustrating and disruptive to the 10–12% of Americans, roughly 50 million, who suffer from tinnitus.
Once thought to be a disease of the ear only, research indicates that tinnitus has a neurological component as well. The brain tries to fill in sounds that the ears can’t pick up. However, often this compensation is faulty, and the tinnitus sufferer is left hearing sounds he or she shouldn’t hear at high decibels and for prolonged periods of time.
If this continues for a while, the patient can also experience a stress response. While a “Fight or flight” response is helpful when faced with a real threat, in this case, it does more harm than good. Instead of sending a message to the brain to stop filling in the missing noise, it does the opposite. The internal noises get louder, thereby contributing to additional neurological and physiological responses. This further explains why patients report anxiety, depression, difficulty concentrating, and so forth.
Tinnitus is often triggered by loud noises. For example, many soldiers returning from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan were exposed to gunfire and explosions without proper ear protection. Over the past ten years, MRIs of the brain (imaging of the brain) have been able to pick up differences that can be attributed to tinnitus. It is possible that brain images taken before and after combat will help doctors diagnose and treat tinnitus in years to come.
Currently, there is no standard treatment for tinnitus. Some doctors prescribe medication, even though none has been approved specifically for the condition. If you seek medical help for tinnitus, your treatment may include: sound therapy, acupuncture, hearing aids, cochlear implants, electrical brain stimulation, mindfulness training, and neck exercises. Here are some highlights:
• Electrical Brain Stimulation
Jay Piccirillo, a professor of otolaryngology at Washington University in St. Louis, has conducted research with electromagnets to keep the brain from overcompensating when hearing loss is present. He told National Public Radio (NPR), “We think that perhaps that electrical stimulation just clears away that pathological, or that faulty, connection,” Piccirillo says, “with the hope that the reconnections are more normal and more healthy.” (http://www.npr.org/2011/07/18/138163304/tinnitus-why-wont-my-ears-stop-ringing)
• Sound Therapy
A man who was suffering from extreme tinnitus symptoms and unable to work was interviewed by NPR, after an unsuccessful trial of electromagnetic therapy. He went on to try a form of sound therapy that involved listening to radio static. Although it was annoying at first, after a while, he was able to tune out the radio static. As time went on, the phantom sounds he heard as part of his tinnitus faded to background noise, like the radio static. Although it didn’t go away, he experienced enough relief that his quality of life improved.
• Neuromonics—Sound and Neural Stimulation
Neuromonics, www.neuromonics.com, makes a device that has been approved by the FDA. It addresses the neurological component of tinnitus, but delivers treatment via sound. According to their Web site, “The treatment utilizes a customized neural stimulus combined with specific music, delivered according to a coordinated program. The treatment is designed to interact, interrupt, and desensitize tinnitus disturbance for long-term benefit.” Each treatment is unique to the patient and each teaches the brain to filter out the extraneous, “inner” sounds.
The therapy usually takes place daily, for two or more hours, during the times of day when the sufferer is most affected. Treatment typically takes six months and can be done when relaxing, reading, working on the computer, cooking, and during other activities. The best results have been achieved when the patient follows a multi-stage process.
• Mindfulness Training
Mindfulness training, which includes the practice of being present and of meditation, has been used very successfully for pain management. As I said in my first blog, there is often a similarity in the mindsets of chronic pain sufferers and tinnitus patients. The lack of control over their lives and the disease creates psychological struggles, such as anxiety and depression.
Currently, phase 2 of the “Mindfulness Based Tinnitus Reduction (MBTR): A Symptom Perception Shift Program” is being conducted. In Phase 1, researchers verified that cognitive behavior therapy and MBTR relieved distress and reduced symptoms caused by tinnitus. The researchers believe that mindfulness training alone will also benefit participants significantly. (http://clinicaltrialsfeeds.org/clinical-trials/show/NCT01229709)
• Nutritional Supplements
Several nutritional supplements have been found helpful for people with tinnitus.
Ginkgo biloba has been found in seven studies to show clear improvement over placebo. It is believed that Ginkgo's mechanism of action is because of glutamate antagonism and neuroprotection. In addition, ginkgo increases circulation because it acts as a vasodilator allowing the capillaries to carry more blood.
Zinc is one of the most important mineral supplements. In one study in January 2003 patients treated with zinc daily for three months had a significant improvement in their tinnitus. This was true for people without or with zinc deficiency. Its benefit is thought to be due to the antioxidant properties of zinc.
Deodorized Garlic improves blood circulation and helps prevent arteriosclerosis. It is a natural antibiotic and antiviral. Several studies have shown that garlic reduces plaque and improves blood flow. It is also natural antioxidant.
At the time this blog was written, the Fifth Tinnitus Research Initiative Conference, “The Neuroscience of Tinnitus,” was being held. Scientists were expected to introduce a new drug, which had been used effectively to treat tinnitus in animals.
I will keep you posted as I learn more.