Treating tinnitus with an implant in the ear

People with ringing in the ears (tinnitus) hear a continuous, extremely irritating sound in the ear all day long. For many sufferers of tinnitus, life becomes a real hell. To date, nothing can be done about this torment, but a solution is being worked on: a tinnitus implant. In the tinnitus implant, vibrations are converted into electrical currents that go to the auditory nerve and an attempt is made to program a silence code. Deep brain stimulation and behavioral therapy can also become successful treatment methods for tinnitus.

Tinnitus, an unbearable condition for many

In our country, approximately 2 million people suffer from ringing in the ears, the medical term is tinnitus . For 40,000 of them, this condition has become so unbearable that they have psychosocial problems. But what exactly is tinnitus?

What does someone with tinnitus hear?

Only those who suffer from tinnitus hear it. The word ‘tinnitus’ makes one quickly think that it is only tinnitus or ringing in the ears, but it can be all kinds of noise, for example:

  • hum
  • a high-pitched beep
  • flutes
  • helicopter sounds
  • low tones
  • High tunes

For someone with tinnitus, every second, minute, hour, day and night becomes almost unbearable because of these sounds and the fact that the sound cannot be influenced.

What causes tinnitus

The cause of tinnitus is not yet known exactly, but the fact is that tinnitus is usually accompanied by hearing loss. Scientists suspect that nerves and switching nuclei in the brain are disrupted due to a lack of sound signals. This science is now being used to research the treatment of tinnitus . Treating does not mean eliminating tinnitus.

Consequences of tinnitus

Tinnitus is not visible to anyone on the outside and is therefore difficult for many to understand what is going on with the patient. But the fact that it is serious is evident from the various psychosocial problems that sufferers of tinnitus experience.
Some examples:

  • Disability
  • Not being able to provide for the family
  • Social isolation
  • Mentally out of balance to the point of despair
  • Suicidal tendencies

 

Maastricht UMC / Source: Antoine, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-3.0)

Treating tinnitus with a tinnitus implant

Research into a treatment method for tinnitus is being conducted at the Maastricht University Medical Center . Ear, nose and throat specialist Robert Stokroos from the Maastricht UMC ENT department is conducting research into the tinnitus implant, together with neurosurgeon Yasin Temel who is investigating the possibility of deep brain stimulation and audiologist Lucien Anteunis who is conducting research into the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapy. Research into the tinnitus implant is far from complete, but tinnitus implants have now been inserted into a number of test subjects with tinnitus. The number of people will be expanded to ten in the trial phase.

How does a tinnitus implant work?

The device is placed in the cochlea of the hearing organ. This can be compared to an implantable hearing aid that is used for deaf people. In such an implantable hearing aid, vibrations are converted into sound. In the tinnitus implant, vibrations are converted into electrical currents that go to the auditory nerve. Instead of sound from the hearing aid, an attempt is made to program a silence code . The operations on the first patients were successful, but the tinnitus implant must be adjusted in such a way that a silent signal is found. This is a process that takes many months.

Deep brain stimulation

In addition to research with an implant, Robert Stokroos’ team is also conducting research into deep brain stimulation. Deep brain stimulation has been used for several years with great success in some psychiatric disorders and Parkinson’s disease. Neurosurgeon Yasin Temel is now investigating whether this technique also has an effect on tinnitus. There are now indications that this brain stimulation indeed has positive effects on tinnitus. The investigation continues.

Behavioral therapy for tinnitus

We are familiar with the phenomenon that people who live next to a railway line no longer notice the sound of passing trains,
or perhaps we have a ticking clock in our house, but we no longer hear the ticking. Both the train and the clock will make the sound audible again if people consciously pay attention to it. Audiologist Lucien Anteunis is also part of Robert Stokroos’ team. Through cognitive behavioral therapy he teaches people to deal with their tinnitus noise. By paying less attention to it, as described with the train and clock, the tinnitus is also heard less. His cognitive behavioral therapy appears to work and many people with tinnitus want to undergo therapy. But there are problems with the treatment. There is a long waiting list and this behavioral therapy is not reimbursed by health insurers, which means that financing is not available.
A favorable future is slowly beginning to dawn for people with tinnitus. Now we hope that health insurers will also realize how important these treatment methods are for tinnitus patients.

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