There is no cure for tinnitus.
But Dr. Katie Gamerl of Norfolk Audiology wants to help those who suffer from bothersome and severe cases of the hearing disorder get back to a normal life.
Gamerl recently began offering tinnitus retraining therapy, a method of treatment that helps patients manage and habituate the disorder’s symptoms and decreased sound tolerance, at her clinic.
“In the past, a lot of treatments focused on covering up the sound the person is hearing,” Gamerl said. “If you cover it up, the brain won’t have that stimulus and therefore will never habituate to it. ... That’s the goal — having the brain hear it but not really having a response to it.”
Tinnitus is the perception of a sound that does not occur in the physical space outside the body. In some cases, the sound may originate from inside the body itself. But many cases are suspected to arise in the nerve portion of the ear and are a miscommunication between the sensory cells that send messages to the brain.
Gamerl said even some people who have severed the nerve to the inner ear could have a perception of tinnitus.
“Even if you do not have that connection from the peripheral (nervous system) to the central (nervous system), you might still perceive tinnitus or ringing or hissing sound in your ear,” she said. “So it’s possible that the brain is responding by not having input from an external source and creating its own sound.”
The disorder is common, affecting between 15% and 20% of people, according to statistics from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Of that percentage, only about 4% of those who experience tinnitus suffer it to a bothersome degree.
But for some, tinnitus can be catastrophic.
Kent Taylor, founder of the Texas Roadhouse chain, reportedly was suffering from severe tinnitus when his death by suicide was reported last week.
Gamerl said she has seen an increasing number of patients who have reported bothersome tinnitus. She was inspired by colleagues in the field whose patients found relief through tinnitus retraining therapy under Dr. Pawell Jastreboff, a professor at Emory University School of Medicine.
“Some people are so dramatically affected, it’s hard for them to even go to work,” she said. “I think the stories (colleagues) shared with me made me feel like I could help people in that way, too.”
The retraining process looks at the disorder from a physiological model; the subconscious brain has categorized the noise as something that is important to which the patient should pay attention, she said. Using a combination of counseling and treatment using hearing devices with sound generators, the retraining process helps patients recategorize the stimulus into something neutral instead of negative, she said.
“It’s very important for individuals who have this to avoid silence. So, often we will recommend hearing devices —if they have hearing loss in combination with tinnitus — that have sound generators in them so that we’re producing stimulation to help with the hearing loss, but we’re also adding these other sounds to help the person subconsciously habituate to the sound of the tinnitus,” she said. “These things work together to give people the best outcome.”
Gamerl said the retraining process is lengthy, lasting on average nine to 18 months, but relief is available.
“It’s a slow process. ... We’ll get them to the place they need to be, but it’s going to take time if we want to have the best outcome,” she said.