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New Approach May Ease Severe 'Ringing in the Ears'

Small, early study used electrical nerve stimulation and tone therapy for hard-to-treat tinnitus

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Searching for a new approach, the investigators behind the new study focused on a small group of just 10 Belgian patients, all of whom had been struggling with severe ear-ringing for a minimum of one year before enrolling in the study. Standard treatments had failed to ease their symptoms.

Each patient was implanted with a stimulation electrode connected directly to their vagus nerve. The research team noted that electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve is already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a method for treating both epilepsy and depression.

Throughout the 2.5 hours of daily treatment, electrical stimulation levels remained below 1 percent of the FDA-approved maximum, according to the study.

For the 20-day treatment period, vagus nerve stimulation was paired with half-second pure tones that ranged in frequency from 170 hertz to 16,000 hertz (cycles per second). Tones were always at least a half-octave above or below ear-ringing frequencies.

In the end, the researchers said the patients experienced few side effects, and that the four patients who experienced relief from their condition had maintained their improvements as much as two months after therapy.

None of the four had been taking any medications during the study period, the authors said. By contrast, the five patients who failed to experience relief had been taking a range of medications.

Dr. Donald Keamy Jr., a pediatric otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist) at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, said the effort addresses a real need for new tinnitus treatments. He was not involved with the study.

"Many people try to ignore this condition when it arises, but this is a very prevalent problem," Keamy noted. "And while we have treatments, there's no one therapy that fits everybody. In fact, many sufferers, like the ones in this study, have tried everything and nothing has worked. Which means, frustratingly, that many people who seek help are told that they just have to live with it, even though they can't sleep and they can't perform their daily duties," he added.

"So this can be very debilitating, and have a really big impact on a patient's quality of life," Keamy explained. "The traditional treatments we have are not sufficient and a search for new approaches -- like this one -- is certainly necessary."

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