Prolific research team tunes in to possible tinnitus treatments

April 16, 2021
Closeup of a man's ear. He is wearing a hearing aid.
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders estimates that about one in 10 American adults had a bout of tinnitus during the past year.

Like any retired salesman worth his salt, Ralph loves a good conversation. He’s interesting and interested — happy to share stories about traveling in Asia and his years of selling everything from beads to building materials in the U.S., and curious about the other person’s experiences.

But these days, a common but annoying ear problem — that in rare cases, can get so bad it makes people suicidal — is affecting his hearing. That’s a big problem for a good listener like Ralph. So he’s hoping to join a clinical trial at the Medical University of South Carolina to test a possible new treatment for tinnitus.

Ralph's trouble started in February. “It came on rather quickly. I’ve never had anything like that before. It's tough to describe the sound. Everybody says it sounds like ringing in the ear, but it's almost like a buzzing sound for me,” the 73-year-old Mount Pleasant man said.

“I thought it could have been a sign of something really serious. I didn't know much about this. I've never talked to people about hearing problems.”

Machine at a construction site. 
Some jobs put you at higher risk of tinnitus. For example, more than half of all construction workers have been exposed to hazardous noise, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What Ralph didn’t yet know was that for some unfortunate people, tinnitus itself is really serious. The CEO of Texas Roadhouse, Kent Taylor, suffered from severe tinnitus following a bout with COVID-19. It got so bad that he had trouble concentrating and sleeping. After Taylor’s death by suicide, his family cited tinnitus as a key factor.

Ralph’s tinnitus wasn’t nearly that bad, but it did worry him. So he made an appointment with Paul Lambert, M.D., leader of the ear, nose and throat team at MUSC Health — a team that has consistently ranked among the best in the United States and does more ENT trials than any other team in the country. 

“Tinnitus is probably one of the most common complaints that we see in our practice. It can occur in any age group, but is more common in people over the age of 50 simply because it's related in large part to hearing loss,” Lambert said.

An estimated 10% of American adults have experienced at least five minutes of tinnitus during the past year, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. That’s about 25 million people.

Dr. Paul Lambert 
Dr. Paul Lambert

Lambert told Ralph the inner ear nerve endings become damaged as people age, a process that can be accelerated if someone has been around a lot of noise, such as a construction site, a performance arena or rifle hunting, without enough ear protection.

Those damaged nerve endings cause hearing loss. But that doesn’t mean they go into retirement. They keep on firing, sending signals to the brain. It hears them as sound – even though there’s no external sound coming in.

Lambert said for many people, there’s a simple solution. “Hearing aids work extremely well for this type of hearing loss. And they have the added benefit of helping with the tinnitus, because they bring in ambient sound that keeps those nerve endings busy.”

He said a lot of patients ask him about medications they’ve seen advertised online. “The question I hear a lot is, 'Would this medication or that one help with tinnitus?' And the answer is really no.”

But there is hope. “I’ve seen more clinical trials involving tinnitus than ever before,” Lambert said. That includes the one Ralph hopes to take part in. It will test the medication OTO-313, which is designed to ease the false perception of sound.

In the meantime, people can try to camouflage tinnitus with machines that play soothing sounds such as ocean waves or raindrops. There are also “maskers” that you wear like hearing aids. They play white noise at a low level to cover the tinnitus.

Lambert said people who are under stress and/or feel depressed or anxious are more likely to be seriously bothered by tinnitus. “You know — ‘I'm anxious, I'm stressed, I'm depressed, and this tinnitus is just making it worse.’ And now, you know, it just goes round and around in a circle.”

So he asks all tinnitus patients about their mental health. “If they’re struggling with that, we get Psychology involved. There are antidepressant and antianxiety medications, along with cognitive behavioral therapy, that can help people deal with stress and strain.”

Ralph didn’t need that part of tinnitus treatment. “You almost kind of learn to live with it,” he said of his condition. And once he realized the buzzing in his ears wasn’t a sign of a more serious problem, he relaxed. “I'm going to get hearing aids, and I want to buy them and wear them around the house.”

For information about clinical trials for tinnitus, email Shaun Nguyen, M.D., director of clinical trials in the Department of Otolaryngology.

About the Author

Helen Adams