HealthWACH: Stopping tinnitus in it's tracks

HealthWACH: Stopping tinnitus in it's tracks

COLUMBIA (WACH) - Tinnitus is defined as the perception of sound in one or both ears or in the head when no external sound is present. It is often called "ringing in the ears," although some people hear hissing, roaring, whistling, chirping, or clicking. Though statistics vary, according to the American Tinnitus Association, more than 50 million Americans experience tinnitus to some degree. Of these, about 12 million people have tinnitus severe enough to seek medical attention. About 2 million people are so debilitated by the noise that they can't function on a day-to-day basis.

According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery, most tinnitus comes from damage to the microscopic endings of the hearing nerve in the inner ear. In older people with tinnitus, the tinnitus could result from hearing nerve impairment that often comes with advancing age. In younger people, the leading cause of tinnitus is exposure to loud noise. In some cases, allergy, high or low blood pressure, a tumor, diabetes, thyroid problems, or injury to the head or neck could be behind the tinnitus. Medications such as anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, sedatives, antidepressants and aspirin might also cause it. The first step toward quieting the noise is to make an appointment with a specialist called an otolaryngologist.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas are now testing nerve stimulation to treat tinnitus. Specifically they are looking at the vagus nerve, which runs down both sides of your body from your brainstem through to your neck and abdomen. Vagus nerve stimulation is already used to treat things like epilepsy and depression, as it can induce changes in the way the brain responds to stimuli. But with tinnitus, researchers are hoping that by stimulating the vagus nerve they can essentially retrain the brain to not respond to the tinnitus tone. A stimulator is put into place in surgery, and will be left in for 12 weeks during the current trial, during which they receive about two hours of treatment for five days a week. Each treatment session is about 300 stimuli each. In a pilot study performed in Belgium, five of the ten participants saw a response, and four of the five had a 44 percent suppression, which is very good compared to current procedures