Tinnitus is more common among men than women, and its prevalence increases with age. Nearly 12 percent of men ages sixty-five to seventy-four are affected. African Americans have a lower risk for tinnitus than do whites, and the risk to those who live in the northeastern United States is half that of people residing in the south. It most often affects those who have a hearing loss, but it is sometimes associated with other disorders such as inner ear damage, allergies, high or low blood pressure, tumors, diabetes, thyroid problems, head or neck injury, reaction to certain medications, stress, some forms of chemotherapy, surgery or damage to the auditory nerve, multiple sclerosis, and garden-variety sinus infections.
Twelve million Americans have tinnitus. Most of them simply learn to live with it, but for about 1 million Americans, it is severe enough to interfere with their daily activities. With more and more people entering their old age hearing impaired after a lifetime of boom boxes, rock concerts, and airplane noise, tinnitus is becoming increasingly common and increasingly distressing.
There are various tinnitus remedies. Some produce better tinnitus relief than others. Some people find that a simple hearing aid works for them. Various forms of counseling and training in relaxation exercises can sometimes help. Acupuncture offers hope to some sufferers, especially those who find that head movement, jaw movement, or facial pressure improve or worsen their tinnitus. People with mild tinnitus who notice the noise mostly at night sometimes get relief from “white noise” machines or “sound maskers.” The incoming sounds block the ringing of tinnitus and allow tinnitus sufferers to get to sleep. Wearable maskers are available for daytime use. An audiologist tunes the sound of the masker to match the frequency of the tinnitus sound; the external sound from the masker overrides the phantom sound of tinnitus for some people.
Despite numerous studies on a variety of drugs, no medication has been found to be an effective treatment for tinnitus, and none has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for tinnitus treatment. Still, the search for an antiear-ringing pill goes on. In 2008 Oregon Health and Science University began clinical trials on acamprosate, a drug traditionally used in the treatment of alcoholism. In preliminary tests it’s been shown to reduce tinnitus symptoms, perhaps by affecting the levels of the neurotransmitters glutamate and gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) in the brain.
Retraining therapy is another option. It coaxes the brain to become unaware of the tinnitus sound, much as the normal brain ignores a background noise like a whirring fan or a humming refrigerator. It combines counseling with the use of low-level broadband noise generators that patients wear in or behind their ears. It takes about eighteen months to complete. The idea is that the sounds of tinnitus don’t go away, but the patient learns to live with them. Controlled trials have achieved mixed results. Scientists in Japan demonstrated improvement in patients after only one month, but more than half of the subjects dropped out of the study, saying they could not tolerate the noise generator they were required to wear.