The 4,500 headphones that eased my terrible tinnitus
23:33 GMT, 9 July 2012
On a flight back from Switzerland three years ago, Jane Mellor was painfully aware of a high-pitched ringing sound in her ears.
‘It was a horrible harsh sound that set my teeth on edge,’ says Jane, 54, a biochemistry professor.
‘And there was no escaping it because it seemed to drill through my head.’
'It was a horrible harsh sound that set my teeth on edge,' said Jane Mellor of her tinnitus
Though she had occasionally heard ringing in her ears before, this was far more intense.
And it persisted for weeks, driving through her head so she couldn’t concentrate and struggled to get to sleep.
Like an estimated 10 per cent of Britons, Jane was suffering from tinnitus — a buzzing, ringing or whistling sound in the ears when there is no external source for it.
And 1 per cent of the population suffers from tinnitus that is so severe it seriously affects their quality of life, disturbing sleep and causing anxiety.
While experts don’t fully understand what causes it, exposure to loud music and noise can trigger tinnitus.
It’s also linked to age-related hearing loss, and is more common in older people.
Normally when we hear a sound, nerve cells in the brain fire in response.
Studies of brainwaves in tinnitus patients show that these groups of nerve cells fire even when there is no external sound.
Age-related tinnitus is thought to be the result of our losing the ability to hear higher frequencies.
As a result, the brain starts to compensate, producing phantom sounds that correspond to the pitches we can no longer hear.
‘It’s a little like phantom limb pain,’ says Mark Williams, principal scientific audiologist at the Tinnitus Clinic in London.
'I can concentrate and sleep properly again,' said Jane
‘Because there’s reduced stimulation to the brain due to hearing loss, the system starts to become hyperactive and produces impulses, which are interpreted as the tinnitus sounds.’
This is borne out by Jane’s experience: the tinnitus is worse in her right ear, which has reduced hearing levels.
‘I was a typical Seventies teenager who liked loud music, which may be partly to blame,’ she says.
Unfortunately, there is no single effective treatment for tinnitus.
Once diagnosed, Jane was seen by a specialist who recommended relaxation exercises and music.
tried distraction techniques, too, such as opening a window at work so
gentle background sounds would take her mind off the sound.
Jane also bought special speakers to put in her pillow that played white noise to override the screaming noise in her head.
‘But nothing stopped it completely,’ she says.
‘And as I became more sleep deprived, I’d get irritable with my three children and with Fintan, my husband.
'And I worried that the quality of my work was suffering.’
Researchers have previously tried treating tinnitus using electrodes implanted in the brain.
These emit an electrical impulse to stimulate the nerve cells and break up the abnormal firing pattern, but results have been mixed.
Jane did some research of her own, and last summer read about a new treatment, Acoustic Co-ordinated RESET neuromodulation, which had been developed in Germany.
After a hearing test to establish the pitch of the patient’s tinnitus, they then wear a portable neuromodulation device (a bit like an MP3 player) to listen to a series of chimes just above and below their tinnitus frequency for between four and six hours a day.
The theory is that this retrains nerve cells in the brain so they stop firing.
At 4,500 for a six-month treatment, it is by no means cheap — but in the study Jane found, published in the journal Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience, it benefited seven in ten patients, who reported a ‘significant and clinically relevant decrease’ in tinnitus loudness and annoyance within 12 weeks, compared with patients who received a placebo.
‘Yes, it is a lot of money, but I was desperate for some sort of relief,’ says Jane.
‘There is a lot of quackery surrounding a condition such as tinnitus, but this treatment is scientifically validated and it was this that attracted me to it.’
Studies by the maker found an average 50 per cent reduction in their tinnitus, which continues after treatment ends.
First, Jane underwent a 90-minute assessment where she was played a series of sounds until she could identify the exact pitch of her tinnitus.
This information was programmed into the neuromodulation device she was given at the next visit.
After a hearing test to establish the pitch of the patient's tinnitus, they then wear a portable neuromodulation device to listen to a series of chimes just above and below their tinnitus frequency for between four and six hours a day
The earphones attached to the device are special medical ones that do not completely block the patient’s ears, meaning they can still hear external everyday sounds.
‘When I first put them on, it was wonderful,’ says Jane.
‘It seemed to take the focus off the horrible tinnitus sound.’
She started wearing the special headphones for four to six hours a day at low levels while she worked, made phone calls and watched TV.
‘Even after I took the earphones out, the noise was less annoying,’ she says.
‘I can concentrate and sleep properly again.’
Follow-up tests showed her tinnitus was lowering in pitch — a sign that the device was working.
The Tinnitus Clinic has commissioned a six-month clinical trial to run at the National Biomedical Research Unit in Hearing in Nottingham and University College Hospital, London.
Most sound therapy devices are called maskers because the stimulation they provide covers up tinnitus while they are worn,’ says Dr Derek Hoare, who is overseeing the trial and is vice-chair of the British Tinnitus Association’s professional advisory committee.
‘The neuromodulation device is interesting as the manufacturers explicitly propose it does not just mask, but interrupts tinnitus by resetting or retraining a particular form of brain activity commonly associated with tinnitus.’
Jane says: ‘The tinnitus is still there — but it’s less shrill, and I hope one day it will fade until it no longer bothers me.’
Dr Ralph Holme, head of biochemical research at Action on Hearing Loss, adds: ‘The demand for effective treatments to silence tinnitus is high and this is an interesting approach, but we need to wait for the results of larger studies before passing comment on whether this is an effective treatment or not.’
tinnitus.org.uk, 0800 018 0527