Treatment, therapy for tinnitus sufferers under development

Several different organizations are racing to a therapeutic solution for tinnitus, or a perpetual ringing of the ears.

Ever return home to sleep after a live concert only to toss and turn from ringing ears?

The condition is called tinnitus, and it's the fast lane on the road to hearing loss.

Tinnitus affects some 50 million people in the U.S., and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that one million new cases of tinnitus are identified each year, 200,000 of which are severe. Tinnitus starts with hearing loss but is exacerbated when the brain attempts to compensate for hearing loss by "turning up" sounds internally, causing psychological havoc.

Some agencies, such as the European Union, seek to limit the damage by imposing volume limits on people's portable media players.

While that's a proactive preventative move, it certainly doesn't help those who permanently suffer from the debilitating symptom.

Several different organizations are racing to a solution.

First up is Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, which earlier this month began offering the FDA-cleared Neuromonics Tinnitus Treatment. This therapy interrupts and desensitizes tinnitus by delivering a customized neural stimulus embedded in music.

The non-invasive therapy -- which takes place over a six-month period -- allows the brain to filter out the disturbing tinnitus sound. "This stimulus is delivered within spectrally modified, customized music, which engages the brain's emotional response center, the limbic system, and thereby reduces tinnitus-related disturbance," according to the university.

Two students in Ireland are taking a similar approach. Studying the problem in physics class, the 18-year-old women proposed that a low hum might straighten out bent cochlear hairs, so they developed a minute-long therapy using the hum and tested it on 250 subjects. Nearly everyone -- that's 99 percent -- of tested tinnitus sufferers said the treatment got rid of the disturbing phantom sound.

The students partnered with their professor to launch Restored Hearing, which will offer the therapy on a pay-per-credit basis.

Finally, recently announced its RIC8+, a user-programmable hearing aid that masks tinnitus. The RIC8+ is a small receiver that rests inside the ear canal and offers four listening programs that can be adjusted by computer.

Regardless of treatment, here are some things you can do at home to prevent and treat tinnitus:

  • Protect your ears. Turn down the volume and wear ear plugs when working with heavy equipment (such as mowing the lawn) or attending rock concerts.
  • Clean your ears. Removing impacted earwax can decrease tinnitus symptoms.
  • Call your doctor. Underlying vascular conditions, head and neck injuries and the rare Meniere's disease can all cause tinnitus.
  • Call your pharmacist. Some medications -- such as antibiotics, cancer medications, diuretics, malaria drugs and aspirin (in way too big doses) -- can cause tinnitus.
  • Head to the store. A white noise machine may be all you need to sleep soundly. Hearing aids and masking devices, such as those outlined in the article above, can also help.
  • Check out the ATA. The American Tinnitus Association is a great online resource for the condition.

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