Acupuncture & tinnitus

Our ears are a complex and often sensitive sense organ critical to our ability to function on a day to day basis. Hearing impairments can often be very obstructive, and in this article we look at how acupuncture can be used to treat tinnitus, a common affliction of the ear.

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus isn’t an actual illness or disease in itself, but is instead a condition or symptom that is a consequence of some damage or sickness of the ear. Tinnitus can be caused by a number of different factors, and describes a sensation of sound in the ear despite the absence of an actual, external noise. Tinnitus is essentially any sound perceived in the absence of an external stimulus.

The sounds of tinnitus can be experienced in either or both ears. Most often tinnitus is described as a continuous, ringing sound, but can vary in its nature and how it is experienced.  Other examples of descriptions of tinnitus include a hissing, whistling, clicking, roaring, or whining noise. These sounds can be experienced continuously or intermittently, which again varies immensely depending on the cause of the condition and so on.

Tinnitus may or may not be suffered alongside some other side effects, most commonly hearing loss. This depends on the cause of the condition. For example, tinnitus caused by exposure to extremely loud noises (through in ear headphones or large speakers for example) is often accompanied by temporary hearing loss. Following severe injury or disease, tinnitus can be accompanied by long term or permanent hearing loss.

Objective tinnitus involves an actual sound generated by the ear which can be heard by an investigating doctor. It is usually caused by spasms (unusual and often prolonged contractions) of muscles within the ear. These cause a characteristic cracking or clicking sound. Objective tinnitus includes a particular subset of tinnitus called pulsatile/vascular tinnitus, which is caused by changes in the flow of blood through parts of the ear. In some instances vascular tinnitus can indicate a more serious underlying condition like an aneurysm of the large carotid artery running through the neck.

Subjective tinnitus is caused by hearing disorders which cause a perception of sound in its absence. This is the more widely known version of tinnitus, most often caused by injury to the ear through overly loud noise. The incidences of subjective tinnitus through this mechanism are increasing because of increasing exposure to sources of loud sound like in-ear headphones and speakers. The afore mentioned vascular tinnitus can sometimes be a subjective condition if there is no physiological change in the flow of blood through the ear.

Causes of subjective tinnitus include:

  • Infections of the external ear.
  • Particularly loud sounds or music.
  • Impaction of ear wax.
  • Drugs that can affect the functioning of the ear like some painkillers (e.g. aspirin), antibiotics (e.g. tetracycline, erythromycin), chemotherapies (e.g. interferon, cisplatin).
  • Neurological conditions like multiple sclerosis or distinctive head injuries.
  • Metabolic diseases like hyper or hypothyroidism.
  • Psychiatric illnesses like anxiety or depression.
  • Other diseases like fibromyalgia and Lyme disease.

Tinnitus can sometimes be difficult to diagnose because of its subjective nature, and if you believe you are suffering from tinnitus you should speak to your GP who will most likely refer you to a specialist doctor.

Treatments for tinnitus vary depending on the various causes of the disease, and can include:

  • Clearing the ear of earwax if wax impaction is thought to cause the condition.
  • The use of implants.
  • Botox to paralyse muscles causing tinnitus.
  • Drugs to treat underlying conditions if those are responsible for tinnitus. E.g. melatonin for sleep disorders.
  • Drugs to treat conditions of the ear.
  • Electrical stimulation to restore nervous function in the ear.
  • Surgical repair.
  • CAT (Cognitive behaviour therapy) is sometimes employed where  subjective tinnitus is thought to have a psychological component.

Depending on the cause and severity of tinnitus, it can range from being a severe, long lasting condition, to a short-term, highly treatable one. Because of the huge variety in the mechanisms underlying tinnitus, and the range in treatments available and their effectiveness, additional management strategies can hugely benefit individuals suffering from tinnitus, particularly those who are finding that conventional treatments are proving less effective. This is where acupuncture can be particularly beneficial.  

How can acupuncture help treat tinnitus?

While tinnitus has  purportedly helped people suffering from tinnitus, it is important to point out that scientific evidence supporting acupuncture as a legitimate treatment for the condition remains inconclusive. While a study performed in 2000 showed the treatment to be ineffective, studies performed since then have found the practice to be an effective method in relieving tinnitus. Further investigations into the area are needed, however there does seem to be some real benefit to pursuing acupuncture in the treatment of tinnitus.

The traditional Chinese belief in how acupuncture would treat a condition like tinnitus revolves around a life energy called Qi which, when disrupted in its natural flow around the body, causes disease. The practice of acupuncture was thought to effectively restore natural flow, and through that, treat conditions like tinnitus.

More modern approaches to the mechanism by which acupuncture works believe that acupuncture can relieve tinnitus by:

  • Stimulating the release of substances called neurotransmitters, important compounds that affect the way the brain and its nerve cells work, and thereby restoring normal hearing.
  • Reducing inflammation, an effect linked to acupunctural treatments of other conditions as well, is thought to help restore healthy blood flow and hence promote the recovery of the ear.
  • Improve general blood flow to the ear which facilitates healing.
  • Stimulating the cochlea (an important structure of the ear).

As mentioned earlier, there is still a strong need for further research into this area, however there is some evidence to support acupuncture as an effective method of treating tinnitus. Acupuncture shouldn’t be chosen as an alternative to regular medical care however, and it is important for you to go see your doctor  if you are suffering from this condition.

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