When a person has the perception of sound but there is no external sound present, it is diagnosed as tinnitus. The sound can be a high-pitched buzz, ringing in the ears, roaring, hissing, chirping, or whooshing. The tone can be high or low, and it can be single or multipitch. For some people it is an occasional problem, and for others it is a constant annoyance. Some experts believe the noise is similar to phantom limb pain and is basically a remembered sound that fills a void when a person loses hearing in specific frequencies.
Tinnitus is becoming more common in the younger population because they continue to crank up personal music devices. It is also reported as the highest service-related disability among veterans from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
Jay Piccirillo, an otolaryngologist at Washington University in St. Louis, is studying a new treatment that targets magnetic pulses at patients’ brains to redirect abnormal connections. The study looks at the ways in which some people’s brains are wired. There are some unusual connections between the auditory cortex that controls hearing and the areas of attention, emotion, and executive function.
Treatment for tinnitus begins with the diagnosis of a patient’s hearing loss. Once the diagnosis is complete, the tinnitus can often be reduced to the point where it doesn’t bother the patient. For some patients, surgery is an option, and many sufferers find relief with regular hearing aids. Sound therapy also helps some patients, while others use fans, humidifiers, or sound machines mimicking waves or waterfalls. Another option is the Oasis device by Neuromonics Inc. This device plays baroque and new age music customized to help reduce the tinnitus. Other patients are more perplexed with the anxiety that comes with tinnitus and find that antidepressants or antianxiety drugs can bring relief. Yoga, acupuncture, and deep breathing can also reduce anxiety associated with tinnitus.
Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) is the new magnetic pulse treatment that breaks the tinnitus cycle in a different way. A magnetic coil placed over the auditory cortex outside the head sends pulses through the skull and attempts to disrupt the faulty communications. This treatment has been used with severely depressed patients, and some reported that the ringing in their ears stopped.
Other patients have determined that learning to ignore the sounds is also an effective treatment.
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