What’s that ringing in my ear?
By Bill Ibelle, Editorial Director
The ringing in their ears never stops. It’s enough to drive a person crazy.
When stacked up against afflictions like cancer and AIDS, tinnitus may seem like a second-tier malady, but for 50 million Americans, the symptoms destroy concentration, sleep, mental health, and even careers.
Tinnitus is the number one cause of disability among veterans, which is why Devon Kulinski, a doctoral student in audiology, decided to study the malady while on his fourth-year internship at with the Veteran’s Administration in Portland, Oregon.
Kulinski notes that there is no cure. While some treatments help people live with the symptoms, nothing makes them go away. So Kulinski, who is slated to graduate in May, decided to look into one of the more popular treatments—sound therapy—and published his findings in the Spring 2019 issue of Tinnitus Today.
While at the VA’s National Center for Rehabilitative Auditory Research, he conducted a comprehensive literature review of the 15 most heavily advertised sound therapy products on the market. What he found is that prices range from a few dollars to a thousand dollars, yet there is no solid research establishing the effectiveness of these treatments.
He concludes that the research on sound therapy “remains muddled,” and that his published paper should be viewed as a “call to arms” for systematic research on the effectiveness of various commercial sound therapy treatments.
The curative power of sound
The first known treatment for tinnitus, which was then known as “phantom ear noise,” was suggested by a French physician in 1821. His recommended cure?
Listen to a roaring fire.
The solution isn’t as farfetched as it sounds. The use of soothing noise continues to this day as a way to lessen the impact of tinnitus. Recordings of mountain streams, waves curling along the beach, and a host of other tranquil sounds diminish the impact of constant ringing, buzzing, roaring, clicking, hissing or humming that push people to their wits’ end. The goal isn’t to drown out the ringing, it’s to distract patients from the maddening sound in their ears and possibly retrain their brain to perceive tinnitus as a less important sound.
The question is, does it work?
The most respected group that oversees tinnitus treatment—the American Academy of Otolaryngology—only endorses two “treatments”: hearing aids to amplify external sound, cognitive behavioral therapy or counseling to manage patient reaction to the constant buzzing.
Neither of these eliminates the buzzing, largely because no one knows the cause.
The Academy specifically recommends against acupuncture, dietary treatment, and magnetic stimulation. It takes a neutral stand on sound therapy, saying it’s unlikely to do any harm, but has not been proven to do any good either.
Yet commercial products for sound therapy abound, and Kulinski’s review determined that they range in price from a $2 phone app to a $1,000 treatment regime. Yet there is no research to indicate whether the $1,000 treatment regime is any more effective than the phone app.
“In the absence of scientific evaluation, patients are left to rely on the Internet and product advertising to determine what course of action to take,” said Kulinski. “I hope my article is helpful to people who are having difficulty sifting through the claims made by these commercial products.”
Following graduation in May, Kulinski plans to accept a research position at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, which is the largest and most diverse biomedical research lab in the Department of Defense.