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New Tinnitus Smartphone Treatment Boasts "Encouraging Results"

All you need is a smartphone and some headphones.

author

Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockAug 12 2022, 15:58 UTC
Illustration of a blue human head with ringing ears from tinnitus
Tinnitus is very common and can be extremely debilitating. Image credit: peterschreiber.media/Shutterstock

“Encouraging results” have come out of a new trial that used a smartphone-based “digital polytherapeutic” approach to treat tinnitus. The findings were reported in the journal Frontiers in Neurology earlier this month. 

The therapy uses an app that can be downloaded onto any iPhone or Android smartphone. Each treatment plan is personalized to the individual’s experience of tinnitus, but it generally involves the person listening to a variety of sounds through Bluetooth headphones and providing the app with feedback.

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“What this therapy does is essentially rewire the brain in a way that de-emphasizes the sound of the tinnitus to a background noise that has no meaning or relevance to the listener,” Associate Professor in Audiology Grant Searchfield, study author and director of the University of Auckland's Hearing and Tinnitus Clinic, said in a statement.

Scientists at the University of Auckland in New Zealand gathered 61 people with tinnitus and divided them into two groups: 31 people used the new digital polytherapeutic approach, while the remaining 30 used a popular white noise app.

After 12 weeks, the results were in, showing that the polytherapeutic group experienced clinically significant improvements, while the control group did not.

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“Sixty-five percent of participants reported an improvement. For some people, it was life-changing – where tinnitus was taking over their lives and attention,” Audiology research fellow Dr Phil Sanders said. “This is more significant than some of our earlier work and is likely to have a direct impact on future treatment of tinnitus,” Searchfield added.

Tinnitus is the perception of a relentless noise in the ears. It’s typically associated with a ringing sound, but it also can feel like roaring, clicking, whistling, hissing, whooshing, or buzzing.

Millions of people experience the condition each year. For most, it will involve nothing more than a ringing in the ears after going to a noisy concert, but for some, it can be chronic and appear for no apparent reason. Oddly, there’s some evidence that suggests it can be sparked by infections, such as COVID-19

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As the researchers note in their paper, the severity of tinnitus is “a complex interaction between detection of the signal, presence of external sound, and influences of attention, memory, and emotion. Psychosocial factors including personality and environment affect the expression and degree of tinnitus severity.”

Given its complexity, chronic tinnitus can be a real pain to treat. It can also take a huge toll on a person’s well-being. A handful of studies have linked having tinnitus to an increased risk of suicide, anxiety, and depression, although the nature of this link is not totally clear. 

As ever, the researchers are looking to carry out larger trials and get regulatory approval. Optimistically, however, they believe their app could become clinically available in around six months.

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It isn’t the only treatment for tinnitus in the works. Back in 2020, researchers in Ireland reported the success of a device that can silence symptoms of tinnitus for up to a year using headphones and tongue zapping. 


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