New treatment, research for "phantom" noise

July 28, 2008 8:51:20 PM PDT
It's a growing problem - people hearing ringing or buzzing in their ears. It's happening more & more with the boom in iPods, and the bomb blasts and rocket fire of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But there is help.

Today's world is loud... very loud - 24/7, we are bombarded with ringing phones, beeping alarm clocks, clicking computers, and construction and traffic noises.

That noise overload can cause hearing loss - or another audio problem, called tinnitus.

The noises many people hear with tinnitus can't be measured with an audio test. Experts say it's kind of a phantom noise. But the distraction can be real. And help is available.

For Barry Bragin of Southampton, Bucks County, a lifetime love of rock concerts was likely to blame.

He recalls with a smile, "Stones... and Cream, I saw them 3 times. Hendrix - I saw, was right at the front of the stage - my ears rang for 3 days."

He says the ringing faded then, but years later so did some of his hearing.

And then one day, Bragin says, "I just woke up one morning with a hissing in my ear."

That's tinnitus.

It can be a hissing, ringing, buzzing, or clicking sounds .... In the ears that one person may hear but others don't.... And it's not coming from the environment.

"It's very similar to phantom limb pain, where a person continues to feel pain in their limb doesn't exist any more, " says Dr. Gail Brenner, of Hearing Technology Associates, of Bala Cynwyd, Pa.

50-million Americans have tinnitus.

That number is rising thanks to IPODs, MP3 players, and the thunder of battle in Iraq and Afghanistan. A recent study says nearly a third of the veterans are coming home with tinnitus, due to the huge number of roadside bombings, and rockets fired.

Other less common causes of tinnitus include: disease, medications,or viruses.

For most people, tinnitus doesn't bother them, but for some it's very distracting.

Barry says, "It changed everything - my social life, working, sleeping - mostly. Relationships."

Like many tinnitus sufferers, Barry he was first told to "learn to live with it," but Dr. Brenner, an audiologist says there are treatments.

Ironically, one is more sound.

Barry used a device called Neuromonics.

It looks like an MP3 player, and delivers musical tracks embedded with sounds that retrain the brain to not pay attention to the tinnitus.

Dr. Brenner says, "The goal of the treatment is a person can go longer and longer periods of time without being aware of the ringing or sounds in their ears."

Barry wore the Neuromonics unit for at least 2 hours a day for 6 months. It can be worn up to 8 hours a day.

Now, he no longer notices the tinnitus.

Neuromonics costs $5,000, and is not usually covered by health insurance.

In addition to retraining therapy, several drugs are showing success in tests.

One is Neurontin, an anti-seizure medication.

Another is Campral, a medication normally used to fight alcohol addiction.

Dr. William Martin of Oregon Health Sciences University, says it acts on chemicals in the brain which may play a role in tinnitus. Dr. Martin is leading a study at the university on it.

Dr. Martin, "What this medication does is it supposedly balances out the excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters - the chemicals in the brain that tell the nerves what to do."

To prevent hearing loss or tinnitus, your best bet is to reduce the noise you're exposed to. If you wear earbuds when you listen to music, lower the volume. And if you are out somewhere where it's too loud to hear the person next to you, earplugs can help protect your ears for the future.

Dr. Brenner says there's no real way to gauge the intensity of tinnitus.

And for tinnitus sufferers like Barry, the impact of limiting its effect is also immeasurable.

As he says, "I feel like I have my life back."