University of Alabama professor Craig Formby looks on as Adam Jones spins in a Roto-Tilt Chair in a demonstration in the AIME Building on the University of Alabama campus., by Adam Jones  –  A University of Alabama researcher is leading a $3.2 million clinical study of a treatment of severe tinnitus, or ringing in the ear.


What it is: Ringing in the ears. About 50 million Americans say they have experienced it, but fewer than 5 million say it is debilitating.
What causes it: Causes aren’t fully known, but in some cases loud noises, such as gunfire, can trigger it.
How to treat it: There is no known cure, since tinnitus isn’t fully understood. Formby’s trial will combine counseling with a hearing aid-like device that makes a sound in the patient’s ear that will blend in with the ringing. With prolonged use, patients may begin to become less affected by tinnitus.

“There’s been a lot of attempts to come up with treatments, but nothing has been very successful,” said Craig Formby, a UA graduate research professor in audiology.

About 50 million Americans say they suffer from tinnitus, but a smaller group, less than 5 million, say the ringing is debilitating. For those people, tinnitus is an all-consuming disease that dominates their life, Formby said.

“We’re trying to bring people back into the pack of those who aren’t bothered by it,” he said.

The treatment being tested is non-medical and is hoped to help patients live with the disease. There is no known cure for the ringing, since the disease is not fully understood.

The new method, called tinnitus retraining therapy, will combine current methods of counseling with a hearing aid like device that will pipe a sound into the ear that blends with the ringing, Formby said.

Patients are encouraged to use the device all day in an effort to help them cope with the ringing. They are asked to try to live a normal day and forget the devices are in, he said.

Previous work has shown about 80 percent of people who undergo the treatment and use the device consistently report diminished influence of tinnitus, Formby said.

Formby didn’t invent the treatment, but he and his UA team will lead the trial, paid for by a $3.2 million award from the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. If successful, the treatment will likely be accepted as standard.

“It’s not new or innovative, it just needs to be tested out,” Formby said. “Ours is sort of be-all, end-all of whether this works and is a viable treatment for people to consider.”

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have a $2.4 million award to manage and analyze the study data. The project will be spread over five years, including four years for recruiting study participants and conducting the treatment and follow-up measurements, according to a UA news release.

All the patients will be drawn from U.S. Navy and Air Force hospitals in California, Texas, Maryland and Virginia. Researchers expect to recruit 228 participants for the study.

Tinnitus is the military’s Number 1 disability among veterans returning from the Middle East conflicts. In 2008, compensation for tinnitus disability in the Veteran Affairs medical system was more than $500 million and is projected to exceed $1.1 billion and affect more that 800,000 veterans by 2011, according to a UA news release.

It’s not clear what causes tinnitus, but loud noises, such as gunfire, can trigger it in some cases, Formby said.

For more info, Reach Adam Jones at 205-722-0230


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