NPR covers a new tinnitus treatment

Photo credit: Paweł L.

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

National Public Radio recently reported on a new tinnitus treatment that involves listening to sounds while having the tongue electrically stimulated. This treatment is supposed to reduce tinnitus symptoms by rewiring brain circuits. It is currently the only FDA-approved treatment for this condition.

Tinnitus is commonly called ringing in the ears, although the technical definition is the perception of sound without an external sound stimulus. There are many causes of tinnitus, including head trauma, viral infections and medications with too much aspirin. But the most common cause of tinnitus is noise exposure. The prevalence of tinnitus is not precisely known, but it is estimated that about 15% of Americans, approximately 50 million people, have it.

I follow tinnitus literature with some interest, because I developed tinnitus after a one-time exposure to loud noise at a New Year’s Eve party in a restaurant on December 31, 2007. I haven’t sought treatment for tinnitus because fortunately my symptoms are mild and bothersome, rather than life-altering. And, 17 years ago, there were no FDA-approved treatments for tinnitus.

I will caution readers that the expert cited in the story serves on an advisory panel for the new treatment’s manufacturer. In a link posted after the NPR piece ran, the manufacturer calls the expert a “partner.” Other experts have expressed skepticism about this treatment. I suppose that if a pharmaceutical company developed a safe and inexpensive pill that could cure my tinnitus with a one-time dose I might take it, but then again I might not. The manufacturer is coy about the cost, but other websites state that the treatment costs $3500-$4000. I certainly won’t spend this much for 12 weeks to rewire my unseen neurological pathways.

I want to emphasize that prevention of disease is always better than treatment. It’s usually cheaper, too. Prevention of most cases of tinnitus is simple and inexpensive: avoid loud noise exposure, turn down the volume, insert ear plugs or leave the noisy environment. That will also prevent noise-induced hearing loss and hyperacusis as well. If it sounds loud, it’s too loud and one’s auditory health is at risk.

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