Q: For the past several years, I have experienced constant ringing in my ears, but unfortunately, my doctors have yet to offer me a concrete treatment option.  How can I get control over my tinnitus?

A: Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, is a widespread condition affecting 40 to 50 million Americans. In comparison, only 28 million Americans have hearing loss. Tinnitus sounds can be described in various ways including ringing, buzzing, hissing, clicking, roaring, and beeping. This ringing is perceived in the absence of external sounds. For some, tinnitus is simply a mild distraction, but for the 10 to15 percent of adults that have prolonged tinnitus requiring medical attention, the condition can have a debilitating impact.  A number of sufferers are unable to work regularly or sleep on a day-to-day basis.

Tinnitus has traditionally been a complex and difficult condition to successfully treat. Most available options have addressed the symptoms, such as anxiety or difficulty sleeping, rather than the root cause. Furthermore, since the condition is most commonly preceded by excessive noise exposure, tinnitus was originally thought to be the result of damage to the cochlea. It's only in recent years that clear evidence has emerged about tinnitus not simply being a hearing condition, but instead one that has a neurological root cause. This new understanding has helped researchers develop clinically beneficial treatment.

It is important to have an Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) doctor evaluate a patient's tinnitus prior to starting treatment. ENT clinicians can rule out the possibility of a more serious underlying condition, such as Meniere's disease and acoustic neuroma, which require medical intervention. Even in the absence of such diseases, tinnitus can still be a seriously debilitating condition, but now there is hope for those affected.

Multiple treatment protocols are used for the treatment of tinnitus. While a complete cure is still not available, some treatments can achieve significant tinnitus control and enhance the patient's quality of life. Tinnitus treatments are divided into pharmacological, audio logical, neurological, and behavioral. A new approach, the Neuromonics Tinnitus Treatment, targets the neurological processes of tinnitus, including the auditory, attention-based, and emotional aspects. Once clinical consultation is complete, patients begin the six-month treatment process, which consists of listening to modified music that is customized for each patient (delivered via a compact medical device the size of a cell phone) and counseling. The relaxing music--customized to the patient's tinnitus and hearing loss--engages the limbic system, the part of the brain associated with emotional response, allowing for effective treatment.

Overall, this treatment aims to reduce the brain's sensitivity to the tinnitus sounds, by retraining the brain to filter out the tinnitus. A recent study shows that more than 90 percent of participants experienced long-term, clinically significant improvement after using the device for six months.

Jack J. Wazen, M.D., specializes in Otology-Neurotology at the Silverstein Institute in Sarasota, Florida.  Dr. Wazen is one of the nation's leading authorities on hearing and balance disorders, pioneering new research in treatments for deafness, hearing loss, and other auditory complications. Additionally, Dr. Wazen is author of the seminal book, Dizzy, which provides new treatment options and hope for people affected by balance and hearing disorders. Prior to practicing at the Silverstein Institute, Dr. Wazen spent 23 years as a researcher, professor, and practitioner with Columbia University and the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center.