Stopping Tinnitus in its Tracks

Music is Terry Price’s livelihood and passion. As a church choir director, he has performed all over the world.

“I just feel like have the greatest job in the world. I do what I love,” he said.

But one day the music he loved so much became painful.

“All of a sudden the higher pitches, instead of sounding like single notes, sounded like clusters of screeches, and it was unimaginably bad. It was terrible,” Price said.

Price had tinnitus: a constant high-pitched ringing in the ears. He had to give up music and even contemplated retiring.

“[Patients] generally classify it as annoying, hard to concentrate, it keeps them up at night, it’s driving them crazy,” Shawna Jackson, AuD, Audiologist at the University of Texas at Dallas, said.

Now researchers are planning a clinical trial to test Vagus nerve stimulation. A small device is placed directly on the Vagus nerve, and electrical pulses stimulate the nerve while patients listen to certain sounds. The idea is to retrain the brain.

“You tell the brain all the sounds are important except the tinnitus,” Sven Vanneste, PhD, Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, said.

In a European trial, 10 patients had the treatment. Half of them experienced significant decreases in symptoms.

As part of this new clinical trial, patients will have treatments for two and a half hours, five days a week from home. The Vagus nerve stimulator is also used to treat other conditions such as epilepsy and depression.

Price hopes to be part of the U.S. trial. But sound therapy has helped him control his symptoms.

“It’s dramatically better,” he said.

BACKGROUND: Tinnitus is defined as the perception of sound in one or both ears or in the head when no external sound is present. It is often called "ringing in the ears," although some people hear hissing, roaring, whistling, chirping, or clicking. Though statistics vary, according to the American Tinnitus Association, more than 50 million Americans experience tinnitus to some degree. Of these, about 12 million people have tinnitus severe enough to seek medical attention. About 2 million people are so debilitated by the noise that they can't function on a day-to-day basis. (Source:

WHAT CAUSES IT? According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery, most tinnitus comes from damage to the microscopic endings of the hearing nerve in the inner ear. In older people with tinnitus, the tinnitus could result from hearing nerve impairment that often comes with advancing age. In younger people, the leading cause of tinnitus is exposure to loud noise. In some cases, allergy, high or low blood pressure, a tumor, diabetes, thyroid problems, or injury to the head or neck could be behind the tinnitus. Medications such as anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, sedatives, antidepressants and aspirin might also cause it. The first step toward quieting the noise is to make an appointment with a specialist called an otolaryngologist. (Source: tinnitus.cfm)

NEW TECHNOLOGY: Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas are now testing nerve stimulation to treat tinnitus. Specifically they are looking at the vagus nerve, which runs down both sides of your body from your brainstem through to your neck and abdomen. Vagus nerve stimulation is already used to treat things like epilepsy and depression, as it can induce changes in the way the brain responds to stimuli. But with tinnitus, researchers are hoping that by stimulating the vagus nerve they can essentially retrain the brain to not respond to the tinnitus tone. A stimulator is put into place in surgery, and will be left in for 12 weeks during the current trial, during which they receive about two hours of treatment for five days a week. Each treatment session is about 300 stimuli each. In a pilot study performed in Belgium, five of the ten participants saw a response, and four of the five had a 44 percent suppression, which is very good compared to current procedures. (Source: Mayo Clinic, Dr. Sven Vanneste)

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