Tinnitus is a horrible ringing or whooshing in the ears. Some doctors say that if it doesn’t resolve within a short time (less than 2 years) after sufferers first hear it, they may be stuck with the unwanted sound for the rest of their lives. For some people, the sound is truly debilitating. But researchers in New York and Virginia University have developed a “sonic brain reprogramming treatment” called Ultraquiet therapy that helped most tinnitus patients in a preliminary trial.
During the trial, adults with severe, disabling tinnitus and some hearing loss underwent therapy sessions for four weeks using Ultraquiet. For the treatment, sound vibrations created by high-frequency synthesized music were passed through the mastoid bone behind the ear. Tinnitus improved for about 2 weeks in 8 of 10 patients. The researchers expect improvements to continue as treatments are repeated.
One in 10 people has tinnitus, which can be caused by earwax buildup, aging, a respiratory or ear infection, a tumor, exposure to loud noise, high blood pressure or even tempomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder. Often, the cause is unknown. But according to a new theory, in some cases, the tinnitus sound results from an oversensitive brain.
Said David Baguley, head of audiology at Addenbrookes Hospital:
“A third of people I see have some hearing loss and tinnitus is strongly associated with that. In another third of cases, the tinnitus appears to have started at a time of great stress, bereavement, redundancy, mugging, or some other kind of a big life event. In another third we don’t know.”
According to Baguley, stress causes changes in the inner ear that ramp up its sensitivity level. And once the patient first hears the sound of tinnitus, the patient gets even more worried about hearing it and concentrates on the sound, hearing it even more. Therapies have focused on masking tinnitus with noise, but that generally works only while the masking noise is present. While retraining therapy can help, it can take years to work.
Losing the ability to hear very high sounds can trigger tinnitus in some people. Once a person can no longer hear very-high-frequency sounds, nerve cells in the brain switch to respond to only lower-frequency sounds. But the nerve cells also react even when there’s no sound at all, which makes the person start “hearing” the sound of tinnitus.
Ultraquiet therapy reprograms those nerve cells by exposing them to high-frequency vibrations through bone rather than through the ear. The sounds thus bypass the middle ear and go straight to the cochlea to be processed by the brain.
For the therapy, the patient wears a headpiece that holds a tiny aluminum ceramic transducer disc against the mastoid bone behind the ear. A particular “music” is played on a special player through an amplifier and into the headpiece. The disk converts the music into vibrations that travel through the bone, stimulating the nerve cells to “hear” the high-pitched sounds as if they were coming from the ear.
The therapy is expected to go into further trials in the U.K. at the end of the year. The trials can’t happen soon enough, for those who have tinnitus. Let’s hope the therapy isn’t too expensive.
Disclaimer: This article does not provide medical advice. Do not take action based solely on this article and always consult with an appropriate healthcare professional. This article is purely for informational purposes.