Tinnitus: The Thief of Silence
BY CLAUDIA GARY
Whatever the causea sudden extreme noise, an accumulation of noise exposure, a head or neck injury, an infection such as Lyme disease, a blood vessel disease, a medication side effect, temporomandibular joint disorder, or something elsethe result can be devastating. Tinnitus can be a nuisance or it can be a disabling condition.
The American Tinnitus Association (ATA) defines the condition as “the perception of sound when no external sound is present,” but it is most commonly described as a ringing in the ears. Actor William Shatner said in an ATA video that tinnitus has “robbed silence from the lives of nearly 50 million Americans.” Shatner said his own tinnitus was caused by “standing too close to a special effects explosion.” It prompted him to reach out to veterans, offering information and hope.
The Department of Veterans Affairs calls tinnitus “the number one disability among veterans, and it affects at least one in every ten American adults.” This includes nearly half of all service personnel exposed to improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a study at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
The decibel level of an IED detonation is at least 140 dBA. The sound output of a 9mm pistol is 157 dBA; a 5.56mm automatic weapon fired from a Humvee exposes a gunner to 160 dBA. A grenade at 50 feet puts out 164 dBA, and a 105mm towed howitzer exposes its gunner to 183 dBA. Yet hearing damage can occur at 80 dBA.
According to ATA, the VA’s 2009 figure of more than 760,000 veterans receiving service-connected tinnitus disability could, at the current rate, increase to more than 1.5 million by 2014. In the same period, the expected compensation would more than double from $1.12 billion to $2.26 billion. In contrast, the expenditure by organizations for research into better treatments and a possible cure was about $10 million in 2009. According to ATA, “the Army is the only branch of the military that requires ear plugs as part of its uniform.”
“A lot can be done for tinnitus,” said Dr. James Henry, research professor in otolaryngology at the Oregon Health and Science University and one of the authors of the Progressive Tinnitus Management approach now used at VA medical centers. The approach includes a hearing exam, sound therapy (including soothing sounds, background sounds, and what are called “interesting sounds” to shift focus away from the tinnitus), and cognitive behavioral therapy to develop coping techniques. Henry is also on the Scientific Advisory Committee of ATA, whose mission is to find an actual cure for tinnitus.
In June 2012 the Tinnitus Research Initiative Foundation organized its sixth international conference, “Tinnitus: The Art and Science of Innovation.” It brought three hundred scientific investigators to Bruges, Belgium. The first TRI conference had attracted only about eighty investigators.
Two of the conference’s organizers, Dr. Berthold Langguth and Dr. Dirk De Ridder, told ATA about what they had learned since 2002. Langguth had been “developing a model of neuroplasticity in the brain,” and “thought it would be an easy model because you were dealing with only the perception of sound.” Now, he says, “we realize how many aspects tinnitus has, and how many parts of the brain are involved.”
De Ridder, working on applications of microvascular decompression surgery, had “wanted to know why this type of surgery didn’t work for tinnitus.” He, too, “thought that the auditory system would be simple to address.” But, he said, “As we all found out, tinnitus seems to be resistant to the simple mechanistic approaches we all started with.”
Despite its complexity, they believe tinnitus is a solvable problem. “Tinnitus apparently does not involve a lesion in the brain,” De Ridder explained, but rather “functional changes, which should be potentially reversible.” Tinnitus research is progressing more rapidly now than ten years ago, and it has become more multidisciplinary. While early research involved auditory scientists focusing on the cochlea, now auditory neuroscientists are studying the brain effects involved in tinnitus.
Tinnitus research has also gained in respectability, De Ridder added. “Our professional colleagues no longer ask, ‘Why would you waste time on a condition that is not well defined, that you cannot objectively measure?’ ” Pain, ironically, is “equally hard to define and measure, and yet that is a more respectable field of study.”
Several treatment strategies are either available or forthcoming. Jane E. Brody wrote in The New York Times in December about a three-month treatment developed by Dr. Rilana F. Cima in the Netherlands, combining cognitive behavior therapy and exposure therapy to overcome the sufferer’s negative reaction, which Cima considers the primary cause of “distress, fear, and anxiety.”
Tinnitus Retraining Therapy has similar aspects, but includes the use of a sound generator. Microtransponder, Inc., is developing a treatment that “pairs listening to tones with small bursts of stimulation to the vagus nerve in the neck.” Good results in an initial trial have been reported. Other approaches include transcranial magnetic stimulation, cochlear implants with background stimuli, feedback to teach the brain to ignore tinnitus, medications to “quiet” tinnitus, antioxidant treatment, Internet-based sound therapy, and psychoanalysis. Some researchers are experimenting with the use of neuromodulatory drugs immediately after the trauma to prevent the emergence of tinnitus.
Readers can download the entire program of the June 2012 TRI conference, along with abstracts of presentations. The VA’s current treatment options for tinnitus are described here. Finally, a wealth of information is available from the American Tinnitus Association at ata.org
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