Throughout medical history, patients have been willing to subject themselves to incredible treatments to relieve their suffering. In the 1930s and 40s, people who were deemed mentally ill, depressed or just difficult by society were subjected to the medical barbarism of lobotomies. Experimenting doctors would drill holes into a patient’s’ skulls and sever connecting neurons within the brain—without any knowledge of the effects on the patient. And while some patients were reportedly relieved of some symptoms of mental illness, most were left not feeling much of anything. They were often cognitively impaired with disconnected and childlike personalities, left to watch the world pass by without noticing or reacting.
Our medical knowledge has progressed leaps and bounds over the last century. Most people with uncomfortable ailments can turn to their doctors for proven treatments, prescriptions and surgical procedures for relief. Unfortunately, there are still some conditions that can cause incredible suffering—and that still have few options for proven invasive care. One of those conditions is tinnitus.
What Is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is when you hear sound that doesn’t have an external source. Tinnitus is not a disease in itself, but rather a symptom of something else going on in your body like noise-induced hearing loss due to damage to the inner ear, stress or a side effect from medication. Tinnitus can also be a side effect of other medical conditions, including meniere’s disease, certain vascular conditions or tumors in the ear or brain.
Patients usually experience tinnitus as a persistent, high-pitched ringing in the ears, but it can also be a buzzing, humming, roaring, shrieking or the sound of your own heartbeat. Tinnitus symptoms can be low-pitched or high-pitched, the volume can vary and patients can experience it in one or both ears.
Many people with tinnitus find their symptoms to be bothersome yet manageable. A background noise that’s easy to ignore. But for millions of others, chronic tinnitus is an unbearable and debilitating condition that intrudes on their lives day and night. These tinnitus sufferers are often desperate for relief, and these are the ones who are most vulnerable to seeking out ill-advised and unproven surgical procedures.
Has Surgery for Tinnitus Treatment Been Tried to Relieve Symptoms?
Unfortunately, because scientists have yet to pinpoint the exact cause of tinnitus, no surgeries have been attempted specifically to repair the disorder. After all, what would doctors repair if they don’t know what’s broken? Therefore, all of the surgeries that have been tried have been destructive in nature. Several studies have been conducted where patients consented to have their auditory nerves cut or destroyed. While a percentage of patients who have undergone these destructive surgeries have reported some improvement in their tinnitus, most reported that their symptoms were exactly the same. Some saw their symptoms get significantly worse. In other words, these patients sacrificed their hearing and the only thing they can hear is the sounds of their own severe tinnitus. Much like the early lobotomy patients, they saw little or no gain.
Are There Any Times When Surgery Can Help Tinnitus?
There is one possible exception for surgery to be a treatment of tinnitus and that is when surgery that is meant as a treatment for other disorders. For example, acoustic neuroma removal. Acoustic neuromas are noncancerous and usually slow-growing tumors that develop on the vestibular nerve leading from your inner ear to your brain. Some patients who experience tinnitus as a side effect of their tumor report symptom relief after the tumor is removed. Again, some patients report worsening symptoms. Also, cochlear implant patients often report an improvement in their tinnitus symptoms with use of their stimulator and implant.
What Treatments Do Work for Tinnitus?
Although occasionally helpful, surgery for tinnitus is largely experimental, sometimes barbaric and often results in total deafness without any relief of symptoms.
However, that does not mean patients should give up hope. Scientists and doctors are working hard to crack the mystery of tinnitus, and many treatments are in the clinical trial pipeline. Until a cure is found, many patients experience remarkable relief and even remission by actively managing their symptoms. You can do this in several ways, including:
- Start with your personal doctor: they can rule out treatable medical condition or prescription drug interactions as the culprit. They can also refer you to specialists for an additional hearing test, treatment and advice.
- Improve your physical health: eating a diet rich in vitamins and minerals, making time for regular exercise and getting at least eight hours of sleep a night can all greatly improve symptoms of tinnitus.
- Concentrate on your mental health: stress can kick-start tinnitus and greatly exacerbate your condition. Your doctor may prescribe an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication, or recommend cognitive behavioral therapy with therapists that specialize in managing chronic conditions. You can work on your mental health at home by exercising, getting enough sleep and incorporating yoga or meditation into your daily routine.
- Use sound generators to mask your symptoms: these could include fans, radios, televisions or white noise machines. You can also purchase wearable digital hearing aids that generates sound specifically to counteract tinnitus symptoms.
- Consider alternative therapies: some tinnitus patients find relief from herbal supplements like garlic and ginkgo biloba, acupuncture or chiropractic care. As always, ask your doctor before pursuing alternative treatment options.