A young woman wincing in pain while pressing against her ear.

When your hearing is damaged by exposure to loud sounds, you may sense a ringing, roaring, clicking, hissing, or buzzing sound in your ears or head. You are perceiving sounds that are not actually there, a condition called tinnitus. Although exposure to loud sounds is one of the main causes of tinnitus, tinnitus can be caused by other factors, such as age-related hearing loss, head or neck injuries, ear and sinus infections, certain medications, or even earwax blocking your ear canal. Depending on the cause, tinnitus can be temporary or it can last for many years.

Roughly 10% of adults in the U.S. have experienced tinnitus lasting at least five minutes in the last year, according to national health surveys. When severe, tinnitus can be very loud, frequent, and stressful. Especially in these cases, it can affect your mental health and your ability to sleep. There is no cure for tinnitus. Although some treatments are available, such as counseling (to accept tinnitus symptoms) and noise-generating devices (to help tune out tinnitus), these treatments don’t work for everybody.

Noisy Planet’s parent organization, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), part of the National Institutes of Health, supports research to learn more about the causes of tinnitus and to explore potential treatments.

For example, Susan Shore, Ph.D., and her team of researchers at the University of Michigan tested a treatment approach to address a possible root cause of tinnitus in the brain. The researchers were able to improve tinnitus in people in the study and in an animal model of tinnitus by stimulating the senses of hearing and touch at precisely timed intervals. The results were published in Science Translational Medicine.

The researchers targeted a brain region called the dorsal cochlear nucleus, which receives signals from both touch and sound. Tinnitus has been linked to abnormal activity patterns in this region. Previous research had shown that specific stimulation patterns between hearing and touch could weaken the connection between the two sensory systems in this brain region. This study provides an exciting potential treatment option for those with tinnitus.

Shore commented, “This innovative treatment is being further tested by our team in a second NIH-funded clinical trial. We hope that this will enable the treatment to be brought to those in desperate need in the not-too-distant future.”

Another study, published in Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience and led by University of California, Irvine, researcher Fan-Gang Zeng, Ph.D., builds upon evidence that cochlear implants can reduce tinnitus symptoms for those with tinnitus related to profound hearing loss. Cochlear implants are devices that are surgically placed into the cochlea, or inner ear, to give someone with profound hearing loss a representation of sounds in the environment and help them to understand speech. The implant directly stimulates the nerve that sends information about sound to the brain, bypassing the need for healthy hair cells in the inner ear.

Zeng’s group tested 18 stimulation patterns for cochlear implants to see how they affected the tinnitus symptoms of the study volunteers. While most people were helped by at least some of the activation patterns, others were not. Also, those who were helped didn’t always respond best to the same stimulation patterns. This study provides insight for hearing health providers about how to use cochlear implants to reduce tinnitus symptoms: they may have to try different types of activation patterns to see what works best for the individual.

“We are developing a non-invasive means of electric stimulation for tinnitus treatment,” said Zeng.

Most people with tinnitus still have functional hearing, which can be further damaged with cochlear implantation. To address this, said Zeng, “NIDCD is also supporting new cochlear implant development that we are working on that may preserve the existing functional hearing while delivering electric stimulation for speech understanding and tinnitus suppression.”

Tinnitus can be extremely challenging. Although we have a long way to go to effectively treat everyone who has severe tinnitus, the NIDCD continues to support research to improve the variety and effectiveness of interventions.

The good news is that you can take steps to prevent tinnitus linked to noise exposure, while also preventing hearing damage. You can:

  • Lower the volume.
  • Move away from the noise.
  • Wear hearing protectors, such as earplugs or protective earmuffs.

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