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Acupuncture for Hearing Loss & Tinnitus: Does it Really Work?

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Dr. Timothy Teague, AuD

Have you ever had acupuncture treatment? If you have, you might vividly recall your first treatment. Acupuncture is a treatment that is commonly used as a part of the larger medical system of Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM. Walking into a calm and comfortable room with low lighting and often the smell of herbs or aromatherapy, the patient is asked to lie on a table that looks like a massage table. In this comfortable position, the practitioner inserts very tiny needles into the body in precise locations. With these needles in place, the person is asked to relax for a duration of time, allowing the treatment to take effect. After time has elapsed, the practitioner removes the needles one by one, and the person is asked to slowly sit up. The treatment can cause a feeling of slight dizziness or head rush, so the process of returning to regular life needs to be slow and careful. This remarkable treatment has been used for a wide range of conditions ranging from mental maladies to serious physical diseases or recovery from injuries. Some of the many conditions subjected to acupuncture therapy have to do with hearing, as well. Hearing loss, tinnitus, and Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (or SSHL) have all been treated by acupuncture with varying results. First, let’s take a look at how acupuncture is said to work, in general. Then, let’s consider the effects of acupuncture on these hearing-related conditions, including the research that is available to test its effectiveness.

 

How Does Acupuncture Work?

Acupuncture is part of a holistic approach to medical intervention, and it is seldom practiced in isolation of other therapies. Crucial to the expertise behind acupuncture is that the mind does not exist in isolation of the body, nor vice versa, so any medical intervention should consider the connections between them. When the tiny needles are inserted into the body at precise points, they are thought to stimulate a nervous system response. When the nervous system is stimulated by a prick, it can cause a chain reaction of releasing chemicals into the muscles, brain, and spinal cord. The effect is not localized, either. Putting these tiny needles into the body in one location can have an effect elsewhere in the body, because the nervous system is the pathway through which information is passed. These chemicals and hormones can cause healing in ways that are only starting to be understood by Western medicine.

 

What about Acupuncture and Hearing-related Conditions?

Although acupuncture has been remarkably effective as a treatment for a wide range of physical and mental maladies, the jury is still out when it comes to hearing-related conditions. Each type of hearing loss has a different relation with acupuncture. Some reports of effectiveness date back to 1940 when a report claimed that acupuncture was able to cure total deafness! Since that time the reports regarding hearing loss have been inconclusive. Anecdotal reports abound, but controlled scientific studies have been limited. In addition, many of the cases used acupuncture in conjunction with herbal treatments and other drug therapy, so it is difficult to understand if the results are due to acupuncture or other features of treatment.

Results have been more promising when it comes to two other hearing-related conditions: tinnitus and Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (or SSHL). In each case, reports have been promising, and some clinical trials have taken place. Those with tinnitus found a reduction in the volume of background noise that had been plaguing them, and the overall feeling of wellbeing was improved, as well. Similarly, SSHL patients responded quite well to acupuncture. This condition itself is very mysterious, as there is no clear medical or injurious cause of the hearing loss. Those with SSHL find that they wake up with hearing loss or total deafness, or it may come after a sudden “pop” out of nowhere. The loss tends to be in one ear, and doctors are still trying to understand how it comes about. Despite the mystery surrounding SSHL, acupuncture has been remarkably effective, in some cases healing the condition altogether and in others bringing back some hearing ability. Of course, in all these cases further research is necessary to precisely measure the effects of acupuncture.