Hearing : New Technology for Military Tinnitus Sufferers

Lauren Sage Reinlie

A medical company wants veterans and people in the military to know they have a new device on the market to treat tinnitus -- a condition marked by ringing in the ears -- that may help where other treatments have failed.

The department of Veterans Affairs recently approved Sound Cure's new device, the Serenade, to treat tinnitus, which plagues many people who have been exposed to explosions in war zones or have spent time working around large aircraft or with loud weapons.

"We're seeing lots of providers that are having very good success with patients," said Jeff Carroll, director of clinical services and engineering at Sound Cure and one of the Serenade's creators.

The Serenade consists of a handheld device that produces sound waves through earphones to help mask tinnitus. It's been on the market for a little over a year.

Tinnitus has been the leading cause of military service-related disability since 2005, according to an analysis of Veterans Affairs statistics by the American Tinnitus Association.

Tinnitus primarily is caused by noise exposure, either cumulative or from a single extreme noise. Head and neck injury is also a cause, said Jennifer Born, director of public affairs for the Tinnitus Association.

She said military members are disproportionately impacted by tinnitus compared to civilians because of the nature of their work.

"They've been exposed to noise that is going to do damage to the ear instantaneously," Born said.

About two-thirds, or more than 840,000, of all service members who seek disability care from the VA do so for tinnitus, she said. It costs the government about $1.28 billion annually to compensate them.

Born said tinnitus causes sleep problems and sometimes makes it hard for people to go to work. She said it is often linked closely with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Existing treatments do not work for many people and have often proved to be more uncomfortable than the tinnitus itself, Born said. There is no known cure.

Several years ago, the Tinnitus Association provided a grant to Sound Cure to come up with a new product to treat a wider range of people with more success.

The Serenade was born.

Other treatments use sound waves to try to mask the tinnitus or ringing sensation. Often, the devices' "white noise" sounds had to be played loudly to cover it up, said Carroll with Sound Cure.

Many patients choose to suffer their tinnitus rather than deal with the devices' loud noise, he said.

The Serenade uses a softer level of a wider variety of sound waves, which the developers call S tones, to mask the tinnitus. The softer level makes it easier for patients to comply with the therapy.

"It's not trying to cover up all these other sounds but still provides relief," Carroll said. "A long-term program could lead to perceptual changes where they can hopefully habituate and be able to stop using the treatment."

Last summer, the VA approved the Serenade, meaning VA audiologists could begin prescribing it to appropriate patients. The VA is authorized to foot the bill for medical visits and the cost of the device, estimated at $800, Born said.

Carroll said he hopes the new device can provide another way for medical providers to try to bring relief to the large number of people in the military struggling with the condition.

"This is the No. 1 disability for veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars," Carroll said. "It's a massive problem. There are a number of ways to tackle tinnitus, and we feel that the Serenade is a very powerful tool with multiple options, but it's certainly not a panacea."

He said VA clinics now have several treatment plans in place, including the Serenade. Veterans seeking more information should contact their local VA medical providers.

TO LEARN MORE More information about tinnitus and its treatments can be found at the American Tinnitus Association website at ata.org.

Contact Daily News Staff Writer Lauren Sage Reinlie at 850-315-4440 or lreinlie@nwfdailynews.com. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRnwfdn.

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