Durham, N.C. — Many people hear a constant annoying sound in their heads that others around them don't hear.
Tinnitus leads 12 million Americans to seek medical help each year, but there's no absolute cure. A new type of therapy, however, is offering patients like Michael Gillespie, relief.
Two years ago, Gillespie had a viral ear infection, which led to some hearing loss. Medication fixed the problem.
“My hearing came back to normal, but as a result of that, I started to develop ringing in my ears,” Gillespie said. “I found that it made me extraordinarily anxious.”
The Tinnitus became so unbearable, he said, that it made him want “to run away from his own head.”
“The main cause of tinnitus is underlying hearing loss,” said Rebecca Price, an audiologist at Duke University School of Medicine’s Division of Speech Pathology and Audiology. “So basically, when someone has hearing loss, their brain is trying to compensate for the missing sound.”
Gillespie found some relief with anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications, but he didn't want to take them for life.
So, Price set Gillespie up with a new type of therapy by first finding the pitch of the noise in his head and then using a digital device – with four channels of soothing music – to mask tinnitus.
The same pitch of his tinnitus is embedded in the music.
“That's where the reactive pairing is happening in the brain - changing the way we perceive the tinnitus,” Price said.
After several hours of use every day over several weeks, the tinnitus fades to the background.
Six months later, Gillespie doesn't need the device as often.
“It's made a huge difference for me, and you know, in a way, it's given me my life back,” he said.
Most Insurance companies still consider the device experimental, so they don't help cover the costs, which, including customization and follow-up appointments, costs about $4,500.