Most common illnesses and injuries have equally common treatments. Stitches for a deep cut. Antibiotics for an ear infection. A bandage and rest for a sprained ankle. Once doctors identify the problem, it’s usually a straight line to the solution.
Unfortunately, that’s not true for people who suffer from conditions like tinnitus. The journey to relief is often a long and winding road, with lots of trial and error along the way. And while there’s no cure for tinnitus, many patients do eventually find ways that work for them to lessen and manage their symptoms. Some people find relief from lifestyle changes. Others improve significantly from working with a therapist. And others still take a less conventional route: they report a lessening of their symptoms from using acupuncture treatment.
What Is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is sound in your ears and head that doesn’t have an external source. While many people describe it as a ringing sound, others experience it as whistling, buzzing, chirping, hissing, humming or roaring. Tinnitus can be brought on by any number of factors. Commonly, damage to the middle and inner ear from repetitive exposure to loud noises that cause hearing loss is the root cause. Tinnitus can also often be caused by earwax build-up, head and neck injuries, meniere’s disease, stress or reactions to medications. Alternative medicine practitioners say that tinnitus is brought on my an internal imbalance, and point at a much deeper disharmony that has been building over time and can be corrected with acupuncture treatment.
What Is Acupuncture for Tinnitus?
Acupuncture is a medical practice that includes stimulating certain points on the body to alleviate pain or to help treat health conditions, usually with a very fine needle that penetrates the top layer of the skin. Acupuncture is one arm of a practice called Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM. It also includes Chinese diagnostic techniques and herbal therapy. Some tinnitus patients respond well to a course of TCM treatment that includes a combination of acupuncture, herbs and lifestyle changes.
Why Do Practitioners Believe Acupuncture Works?
TCM practitioners believe we all have a vital life force in our bodies. This life force is called “qi” (pronounced chee) or just “energy.” It helps to fuel the many functions of the body. This energy travels along pathways in the body practitioners called “meridians.” When there are imbalances or blockages in this energetic pathway system, practitioners say they manifest as illnesses and pain. The acupuncture needles are said to address these imbalances and correct the flow of energy so healing can take place. In this case, help treat tinnitus symptoms.
Why Do Scientists Believe Acupuncture Works?
While several scientific studies report that acupuncture can have significant (though often temporary) effects on pain and illness, nobody quite knows why it works. One major hypothesis is that acupuncture works through effects on neurohormonal pathways. The needle may stimulate nerves at certain junctions of the body, causing the nerve to send signals to the brain. The brain releases neural hormones that help patients feel euphoric, causing them to feel less discomfort from their medical conditions.
Another hypothesis is that acupuncture works by reducing proinflammatory proteins in the body, which decreases inflammation and reduces discomfort. Yet another hypothesis suggests that acupuncture can be used to treat nerve damage by stimulating the brain to secrete growth factor, helping nerves to regenerate.
Another possibility is because the effects of acupuncture can be a very relaxing experience, a course of treatment can help patients lower their stress levels, which has been shown to reduce symptoms of tinnitus.
Finally, it’s possible that acupuncture and TCM produces a placebo effect. However, that does not necessarily mean that patients are being fooled or tricked into believing their symptoms are improving. Studies show that when patients believe they are receiving an effective medical treatment, the body often responds by initiating the healing process on its own.
What Happens at an Acupuncture Appointment?
Most TCM practices look and operate just like a traditional doctor’s office. Once you arrive and check in, you’ll sit in a waiting room briefly until you are escorted back to your exam room. There the practitioner will ask you many questions, not just about the condition that brought you in, but also about your current health and health history. They will feel your pulse and ask to see your tongue, which are both diagnostic techniques used in TCM.
After the evaluation, the practitioner will step out as you undress down to your underwear and lay on the exam table. When the practitioner returns, they will begin gently placing the needles in the acupuncture points of your body they feel will best help with your healing. The needles are very fine and do not produce pain. When finished, the practitioner will turn on a heat lamp to keep you comfortable, turn on soft music, and dim the lights. They will then leave you to rest for 30-45 minutes. Most patients report this to be an extremely relaxing time. You may even experience feelings of euphoria or floating. When the appropriate amount of time has passed, the practitioner will return to remove the needles and then step out so you can get dressed.
Finally, they will return to the room to discuss a diagnosis and options for treatment plans, including additional appointments and supplements you can take at home (NOTE: before taking supplements, always check with your doctor and pharmacist to make sure the supplements will not produce adverse effects with other health conditions you may have or other medications you may be taking).
Should You Try Acupuncture for Tinnitus?
Bottom line, acupuncture has been shown by some studies to provide relief treating tinnitus symptoms. However, everyone reacts differently to acupuncture, and the relief you feel may be temporary. While acupuncture should never replace care from your personal doctor, as a complementary procedure, many people find it to be a helpful and very relaxing experience, providing a rare moment of peace for tinnitus sufferers.