A new tinnitus treatment could help restore hearing to the as many as 20 percent of Americans who lie with the condition. People with tinnitus experience a constant ringing sensation in one or both ears. Some people experience it as buzzing, beeping, ticking, clicking, or roaring, but regardless of the specific sound, it can interfere with both hearing and quality of life. In about two-thirds of sufferers, the sensation comes and goes. It sometimes decreases with age, particularly in women—for about one in six women and half of all men, tinnitus doesn’t change at all over tie. The primary effect is psychological, causing or exacerbating fatigue, irritability, and depression.
Tinnitus can have a number of causes, various things that can damage the inner ear, causing it to detect sounds that aren’t there. Long-term exposure to loud noise is one of the most common, though an accumulation of earwax can also be responsible. Several diseases, including TMJ disorder and noncancerous tumors along the nerve pathway linking the ear to the brain can also be responsible.
Perhaps surprisingly, tinnitus can affect the way sufferers feel emotions. That’s because tinnitus increases stress, irritability, anxiety, and depression. In a study, people with tinnitus reacted to emotional noises slower than people without tinnitus, even among people with some degree of hearing loss. Imaging procedures showed that it wasn’t simply a matter of not hearing the sounds—the scans showed less activity in the emotion centers of the brains of tinnitus sufferers than of other subjects, including hearing-impaired subjects without tinnitus. The researchers speculate that the constant noise of tinnitus has led to the brains of sufferers dialing back the response to noises, like turning of the smoke detector before pan-frying.
There is no cure for tinnitus, but researchers have found that women who drink coffee are less likely to have it than women who do not. It is unclear whether there is a causal relationship, but caffeine stimulates the nerves. One tinnitus treatment being looked at operates directly on the nerves, specifically the vagus nerve that keeps the brain apprised of body activity. Vagus nerve stimulation is used for epilepsy, and in combination with tone therapy, has reduced tinnitus in lab tests.