Since the beginning of time, humans have worked to alleviate their own sickness, pain and suffering. That drive to find comfort and cures is a good thing; it was the catalyst behind what is now modern medicine, and it’s the force that continues to push us to develop and discover more powerful cures.
However, our need to feel better didn’t just spawn medicine. It also led the way for medical quackery.
We’ve all heard of strange cures used throughout history. In ye olde times, bloodletting via cutting open a vein or even attaching leaches to the body was thought to “balance the humors.” Lethal toxins like arsenic and mercury were promoted as cure-alls. Cocaine and heroin were common ingredients in elixirs for children. And animal excrement was a hot commodity pitched by every snake-oil salesman on the block.
But did you know that medical books throughout history also reference bizarre cures for tinnitus? Yes, it seems that even the ancients were afflicted with the dreaded din. And whether they were developed by early physicians genuinely hoping to help their patients or by quacks looking to make a buck, these comical (and occasionally horrifying) cures are too strange to ignore.
What is Tinnitus?
Before we explore the weird remedies throughout history, let’s review what tinnitus actually is. Tinnitus is when patients hear sound that doesn’t have an external source. Most people experience tinnitus as a ringing sound, but it can occur in a variety of ways.
It can sound like hissing, whooshing, humming, screeching, electricity crackling and more. While tinnitus can have a myriad of triggers—including stress, side effects from medications, vascular conditions, even ear wax buildup—doctors generally agree that the root cause of most cases of tinnitus is a misfiring of the nerves sending sound signals to the brain, brought on by hearing damage from repeated exposure to loud noises, old age or trauma.
And while doctors, patients and advocates promote many ways of managing symptoms, medicine has yet to come up with an actual cure for tinnitus—but that doesn’t mean people throughout history haven’t tried.
What Are Some Strange Tinnitus Treatments People Have Used?
Descriptions of tinnitus and its treatments date all the way back to ancient civilizations.
A sheet of Egyptian papyrus describes a “bewitched ear”—presumably one afflicted with tinnitus—that could be treated with a concoction of oil and frankincense. A later Egyptian papyrus described inserting a tubular reed into the ear and using it to deposit sap, herbs, salt and rose oil. The ancient Assyrians wrote on clay tablets about three different kinds of tinnitus: “whispering,” “speaking,” and “singing” in the ears, and treated it by reciting an incantation and pouring rose extract into the ear through a bronze tube.
The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder instructed his readers to place earthworms boiled in goose grease deep inside of the ears. Welsh physicians recommended that their patients take a freshly baked loaf of bread out of the oven, cut it in two, “and apply to both ears as hot as can be borne, bind and thus produce perspiration, and by the help of god you will be cured.”
Some early physicians based these prescriptions on what they believed tinnitus to be. Some thought it was caused by wind that got trapped inside the ear. They tried to release the wind by drilling a hole into the bones around the ear, or by using a silver tube to suck air out of the ear canal. Annamite tribes in eastern India believed tinnitus was caused by small animals fighting inside of the patient’s ear, and treated it by fumigating the ear with the smoke of burning snakes.
Strange and interesting cures continued to emerge even throughout modern times. Some patients, in an attempt to find relief, have had surgery to cut their auditory nerve. A study from 1981 reviewed the success rates of this procedure; forty-five percent of patients said their tinnitus improved post-surgery, but 55 percent said it stayed the same or got worse, indicating that their tinnitus wasn’t only happening in the ear, but also in the brain.
And, most recently, the Reddit cure for tinnitus—a trick that involves firmly tapping the back of the head—gained viral popularity, though most people who have seen success with the technique have only reported temporary relief.
What Are Some Proven Tinnitus Treatments?
Unfortunately, there is no one cure-all for tinnitus, and no certain timeline for its progression. But you can take an active role in managing your tinnitus. While no single approach works for everyone, patients who seek out strategies that work for them may feel more in control of their condition—and even see their symptoms improve or disappear altogether.
- See your doctor. If you develop tinnitus, it’s important to tell your doctor so they can check you for any underlying causes that may point to effective treatment options.
- Take care of yourself. Your overall health can affect your tinnitus, so now is the time to take steps to improve your diet, physical activity, sleep and stress levels.
- Don’t forget your mental health. Tinnitus can be hugely stressful for you and your loved ones, and stress can exacerbate your condition. Watch closely for the signs of depression, anxiety and insomnia, and talk to your doctor about treating them with medication or therapy.
- Avoid silence, and try masking. Tinnitus is often most noticeable (and aggravating) when you are in very quiet places. Try masking — creating distracting noise — by playing music or having a radio, fan or white-noise machine on in the background. You can purchase a masking device, worn like a hearing aid, to generate gentle, low-level sound.
- Other therapies. Some patients find relief with less conventional techniques, including:
- rTMS, a procedure that uses a magnetic field to stimulate the brain
- Tinnitus retraining therapy, a technique that attempts to normalize the tinnitus signals in the brain, making them less noticeable
- Dietary supplements like ginkgo biloba