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To keep the brain activated and aware, Kilgard’s therapy involves stimulating the vagus nerve, which is actually a pair of nerves that runs inside the neck and into the brain. “All the stuff you brains learns about your body — it all comes in through the vagus nerve,” he says. “We trick the brain into thinking it’s learning something important by stimulating this nerve in the neck.”
Due to the large variability in tinnitus, a one-size-fits-all approach (as offered by maskers) will have limited benefits. Indeed, there is evidence that being able to customize a sound therapy (e.g., using the tinnitus pitch or hearing loss profile), will provide greater benefits7,8 for tinnitus sufferers. Given the evidence supporting this line of thinking and the limitations of existing tinnitus management options, we were driven to develop and rigorously test an enjoyable, personalized sound therapy that has potential to provide lasting relief to tinnitus sufferers.
There's no known cure for tinnitus. Current treatments generally involve masking the sound or learning to ignore it. A research team led by Dr. Michael Kilgard at the University of Texas at Dallas and Dr. Navzer Engineer at MicroTransponder, Inc. set out to see if they could develop a way to reverse tinnitus by essentially resetting the brain's auditory system. Their work was funded in part by NIH’s National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD).
Sound therapies are one method that has previously been shown to reduce the severity of tinnitus. While not all sound therapies have gone through rigorous clinical testing, they have far greater traction and adoption in the tinnitus community. There are two types of sound therapy approaches: (1) maskers that are intended to block out the tinnitus and have the patient learn to ignore their tinnitus, and (2) sound therapies that utilize the same brain plasticity that is thought to be causing the tinnitus for the purpose of reducing it. Both approaches can be delivered via electronic devices that can produce sound. There has been an increase in tinnitus maskers that are built into hearing aids. These built-in maskers generate different sounds including white noise and random tones. Unfortunately, due to their design, hearing aids are still limited to providing masking at frequencies below 8 kHz.
Though the exact cause of tinnitus — as in the specific mechanism that creates these phantom sounds in some people — remains unknown, contributing factors and triggers have been identified. Excessive exposure to loud noise is often a factor because of the damage done to your auditory system. Tinnitus may also result from jaw-joint dysfunction (e.g., teeth grinding, temporomandibular joint disorder) or chronic neck muscle strain.
Acoustic Neural Stimulation. This relatively new treatment has shown to be effective in reducing, and in some cases eliminating, symptoms in patients whose tinnitus just won’t go away or is very loud. The treatment utilizes a device small enough to fit into the palm of your hand that delivers a broadband acoustical signal embedded in special music you can listen to via headphones. The treatment eventually desensitizes you to the ringing in your ears by stimulating changes in the neural circuits in your brain.
There are, however, excellent tools to help patients manage their condition; treatments that reduce the perceived intensity, omnipresence, and burden of tinnitus. These currently available treatments are not “cures” — they neither repair the underlying causes of tinnitus, nor eliminate the tinnitus signal in the brain. Instead, they address the attentional, emotional, and cognitive impact of tinnitus. They help patients live better, more fulfilling, and more productive lives, even if the perception of tinnitus remains.
John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.
Currently there is no cure for most cases of tinnitus. Depending on the type of tinnitus, symptoms will tend to come and go over time. Stress level, diet, and exposure to noise can worsen tinnitus. Many people find their tinnitus annoying but can learn to adapt without difficulty. It is likely that if you have had tinnitus, you will have it again in the future.
Technology and portable music devices also contribute to noise pollution, especially in younger people. Keep the volume of your phone, MP3 players or iPod on the lower end when listening to headphones, and don’t play very loud noises for long durations of time. To aid in tinnitus treatment, look out for changes in your ability to hear if you’re frequently exposed to loud noises, limit use of headphones or consider wearing earplugs.
Persistent tinnitus may cause anxiety and depression. Tinnitus annoyance is more strongly associated with psychological condition than loudness or frequency range. Psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances and concentration difficulties are common in those with strongly annoying tinnitus. 45% of people with tinnitus have an anxiety disorder at some time in their life.
Muscle spasms: Tinnitus that is described as clicking may be due to abnormalities that cause the muscle in the roof of the mouth (palate) to go into spasm. This causes the Eustachian tube, which helps equalize pressure in the ears, to repeatedly open and close. Multiple sclerosis and other neurologic diseases that are associated with muscle spasms may also be a cause of tinnitus, as they may lead to spasms of certain muscles in the middle ear that can cause the repetitive clicking.
The diagnosis of tinnitus is usually based on the person's description. A number of questionnaires exist that may help to assess how much tinnitus is interfering with a person's life. The diagnosis is commonly supported by an audiogram and a neurological examination. If certain problems are found, medical imaging, such as with MRI, may be performed. Other tests are suitable when tinnitus occurs with the same rhythm as the heartbeat. Rarely, the sound may be heard by someone else using a stethoscope, in which case it is known as objective tinnitus. Spontaneous otoacoustic emissions, which are sounds produced normally by the inner ear, may also occasionally result in tinnitus.
Even with all of these associated conditions and causes, some people develop tinnitus for no obvious reason. Most of the time, tinnitus isn’t a sign of a serious health problem, although if it’s loud or doesn’t go away, it can cause fatigue, depression, anxiety, and problems with memory and concentration. For some, tinnitus can be a source of real mental and emotional anguish.
If you have tinnitus, you might be feeling frustrated and helpless, but there is hope! The first step is to consult a hearing care professional at one of our consumer-reviewed clinics. There are also audiologists who specialize in managing tinnitus and many non-medical ways to help you regain your quality of life. Learn more through the links here and, when you’re ready, let us help you connect with a professional in your area.