Calm in a Noisy World

The ringing just never goes away.

That’s a complaint Portland, OR-based research audiologist and Veterans Affairs Rehabilitation Research and Development (RR&D) Research Career Scientist Jim Henry has heard time and again in his longtime work with people with tinnitus. The common audiological issue stems from age-related hearing loss, ear injury or a circulatory system disorder, causing patients to perceive nonstop noise or ringing in the ears. It has no cure.

“Many tinnitus sufferers are trapped,” says Jim, who understands well what they are going through because he lives with the disorder, too.

Jim has dedicated himself to uncovering what works best to manage the condition and help patients deal with the emotional stress and isolation it can bring. Because of the devastation and desperation some tinnitus sufferers experience in their everyday lives and relationships, they’re often willing to grasp at any therapy that might provide relief. And that means snake-oil salesmen abound.

“Anyone can claim to be a tinnitus expert,” Jim says, “especially on the internet. They can pretty much do anything and charge anything—there are no standards.”

To lay the groundwork for a baseline of consistent protocols patients could seek out from certified audiologists, Jim has tested a range of audiologic procedures on research participants. He’s conducted numerous randomized controlled trials to evaluate different methods. Two of the trials have involved the use of hearing aids — with and without a built-in sound generator — to determine how they provide relief from tinnitus. Each of these methods and participant responses have helped pinpoint techniques that work, and others that don’t, for diagnosing the level of tinnitus a patient has and recommending the right treatment.

“One big reason for tinnitus research, especially clinical,” Jim says, “is to establish standards so that we’re all doing the same thing and there’s an evidence base for what we’re doing.”

Since 1999, Jim and his colleagues have held support groups at the VA hospital for tinnitus sufferers.

“We try to make these groups informative and helpful,” he says. “We’re not charging them to be there, or asking them to buy anything. Our research has led us to the point where we can be very specific about what we think is most effective and most helpful to patients.”