Tinnitus is ringing in the ears, or the perception of noise without an external source. It is a common problem in the United States. Experts estimate that around 20% of people are living with tinnitus.
By itself, tinnitus is not inherently dangerous. However, the American Tinnitus Association estimates that:
- 50 million Americans experience tinnitus at varying degrees
- 16 million have severe symptoms, enough to warrant treatment
- 2 million tinnitus sufferers are unable to function daily due to the debilitating effects of the condition
On top of these, tinnitus is often a symptom of underlying health conditions such as ear injury, hearing loss due to age or issues with one’s circulatory system.
Many people tend to ignore tinnitus symptoms because they come and go. Unfortunately, untreated tinnitus can severely reduce one’s quality of life.
Since there are so many possible causes for tinnitus, the treatment also varies widely.
Western medical intervention is usually a combination of medication, electronic devices and therapy. These can work to some extent, but for some patients, the side effects can be risky. For example, Alprazolam (Xanax) is a conventional medication for tinnitus but it can be highly addicting.
As a result, more and more patients are turning to acupuncture to complement their current tinnitus treatment, or even as the first treatment of choice. This 3,000 year old traditional Chinese healing art shows excellent promise for treating tinnitus in an all-natural, non-invasive and holistic way.
An In-Depth Look at Tinnitus
Tinnitus is more than just hearing phantom when none is present. It is essential to learn more about this complex condition to understand how effective acupuncture is for tinnitus.
Symptoms of Tinnitus
The key symptom of tinnitus the sensation of hearing sounds that are not there. It typically manifests in the following:
Tinnitus doesn’t sound the same for everyone, even though most people experience it as a ringing in the ears, head and neck. It’s unique to every individual. Its pitch can vary from a high squeal to a low roar, and it can be so loud that the sufferer is unable to hear external sounds or concentrate on an activity. Tinnitus may come and go, and it may also be non-stop.
Kinds of Tinnitus
There are two main types of this disorder:
The most common type of tinnitus, it refers to experiencing sounds that only the affected individual can hear.
This type is a unique form of tinnitus wherein a medical professional can hear it during an examination.
Although anyone can have tinnitus, the following elements increase the risk:
As a person ages, the number of healthy nerve fires in the ears goes down. As such, hearing loss is one of the top conditions associated with tinnitus.
Prolonged exposure to loud noises
People who consistently spend a lot of time in noisy environments, such as musicians, construction workers and soldiers are susceptible to tinnitus. Prolonged exposure to extreme noise can damage the ear’s sensory hair cells.
Studies have shown that smokers have a higher chance of developing tinnitus
Males are likelier to experience tinnitus than females.
Causes of Tinnitus
In most patients, these conditions can cause tinnitus:
- Earwax blockage
- Age-related hearing loss, which usually starts around age 60
- Noise-related hearing loss, such as those caused by heavy equipment, firearms and loud concerts
- Changes in the middle ear bones, which tend to run in families with cases of abnormal bone growth
Other less common conditions that can cause tinnitus include:
- Meniere’s disease, which is an inner ear disorder caused by fluid build-up
- Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders
- Neck injuries
- Head injuries
- Dysfunction of the Eustachian tube
- Acoustic neuroma or vestibular schwannoma, which involves the growth of a benign tumor on the cranial nerve which is responsible for hearing and balance
- Muscle spasms inside the ear
- Blood vessel disorders such as atherosclerosis
- Certain medications such as antibiotics, cancer medication, diuretics, certain antidepressants, quinine medications and aspirin in very high dosage
Complications of Untreated Tinnitus
Failing to address tinnitus can cause incredible social, mental and physical distress. Specifically, it can lead to memory problems, difficulties concentrating, fatigue, irritability, anxiety, social isolation and inability to sleep.
Western Medicine and Tinnitus: Diagnosis
To diagnose tinnitus, a medical professional will look for possible tinnitus causes by examining your neck, head, and ears. The process can involve:
Audiological (hearing) exam
The test is usually conducted in a soundproof room. The patient will wear earphones and specific sounds will be played through one ear at a time.
Then, the patient will indicate if they hear any sound. Afterward, the test results are compared to what is considered average for that age range. This method is used to identify or rule out the causes of tinnitus.
In case medical professionals already suspect a possible cause, they may order MRI scans or CT scans to confirm or rule it out.
Tests involving movements, such as clenching your jaw, moving your eyes, or moving your legs, arms and neck, can also help diagnose tinnitus. If the phantom sounds get worse or changes, it may indicate an underlying condition that requires treatment.
Aside from these tests, medical professionals also get clues for possible causes of tinnitus based on the type of sounds the patient hears. For instance:
Ear trauma and exposure to extremely loud noises can cause a buzzing or high-pitched ringing that can last for a few hours. However, if the incident causes hearing loss, tinnitus may become a permanent condition.
This type of phantom noise can indicate blood vessel problems, such as tumors, aneurysms and blockages in the Eustachian tube or ear canal. These can cause pulsative tinnitus (or hearing the sound of your heartbeat).
Muscle contractions around and in the ear can cause bursts of sharp clicking sounds that can last up to a few minutes.
Humming or rushing sounds
These sounds typically have underlying vascular conditions. They usually manifest when you stand up, lie down, or change positions.
Western Medicine Treatments for Tinnitus
Western medicine generally treats patients using a combination of anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants, treating vascular conditions, hearing aids, masking devices and other methods.
Some of these can be successful in easing tinnitus symptoms. For an increasing number of people, however, the risks such as habit-formation from addictive medication like Xanax outweigh the possible benefits.
Because of this, acupuncture for tinnitus has become a sought-after alternative treatment.
How Acupuncture for Tinnitus Works
The flow of Qi (energy) is the foundation of health in traditional Chinese medicine. The qi travels along meridians or invisible pathways that run throughout your body, like a road map or the map of the nervous system.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, Qi is responsible for the body’s natural healing abilities and balance. Disruptions or blockages in the flow of qi in the meridians can cause emotional and physical issues.
During an acupuncture session, the licensed acupuncturist will insert very thin needles into the skin in order to stimulate particular trigger points. In turn, this stimulation will restore the flow of qi by clearing blockages along the body’s meridian and treat tinnitus.
How Effective is Acupuncture for Tinnitus?
Some of the evidence based on several studies show that acupuncture for tinnitus can be an effective treatment for the condition. Below are some of the results:
- A review of existing studies done in 2016 also shows that acupuncture can be effective for tinnitus.
- A 2018 study of 88 adults with tinnitus versus a control group found that acupuncture can relieve the phantom noises.
On top of this, no study shows tinnitus can get worse with the effects of acupuncture. Acupuncture seeks to achieve whole-body health by factoring in other elements of an individual’s lifestyle into the treatment.
The holistic approach includes looking into other aspects of a patient’s life, such as their eating habits, work routine, personal relationships and other details to build a multi-pronged approach to tinnitus.
Is Acupuncture for Tinnitus Safe?
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, acupuncture as a treatment of tinnitus is safe, but only when an experienced and trained acupuncturist performs it.
Licensed Acupuncturists use safe practices such as using disposable needles to minimize health risks during acupuncture treatments. Like any decision that may affect one’s health, it is essential to do your research before receiving acupuncture.
Moreover, tinnitus patients report very little or no discomfort from acupuncture sessions, but uncommon side effects can include:
- Tenderness around the involved areas
Some medications can make patients more likely to bruise during treatment, and some procedures commonly used in conjunction with acupuncture are not for everyone. Therefore, make sure to disclose relevant medical information before an acupuncture session regardless of what you are having treated.
Factors That Can Boost the Benefits of Acupuncture for Tinnitus
On its own, acupuncture can significantly help reduce the symptoms of tinnitus. However, your acupuncturist may recommend a few lifestyle changes to enhance the benefits of acupuncture and make sure the treatment is effective. You may be advised to:
- Follow a clean diet
- Take certain Chinese herbs
- Do exercises that can ease tinnitus symptoms
- Explore ways to relieve stress
- Enact lifestyle changes such as reducing exposure to loud noises
- Consider counseling to address the negative social and emotional effects of tinnitus
While more research and clinical trials on acupuncture need to be done, current evidence shows that this ancient traditional Chinese medicine technique can be useful in managing the symptoms of tinnitus.
The holistic approach also appeals to individuals who prefer not to take medications to address tinnitus symptoms.
Finally, it is a good idea to seek medical advice from your healthcare professional along with trying acupuncture for tinnitus. This way, any underlying causes of tinnitus are treated accordingly in addition to acupuncture as a treatment for tinnitus.