Tinnitus is a sensation of hearing noise when no external sound is present. It is a ringing, buzzing, clicking, whistling, hissing, or roaring sound that can vary in pitch and can come and go or be present all the time. In many cases the sound can be so severe that it can interfere with a person’s daily activities or even sleep. Tinnitus is not a condition itself but a symptom of an underlying condition such as hearing loss, ear injury, or a circulatory disorder. Tinnitus is a common problem, affecting about 1 in 5 people, and becomes more common as we age. It is a difficult problem to live with and can cause fatigue, stress, sleeping problems, trouble with concentration and memory, and depression, anxiety and irritability.
From a Western Medicine perspective, tinnitus can be caused by a number of factors such as loss of hearing (people with different kinds of hearing loss may also have tinnitus); loud noise (too much exposure to loud noise can also cause noise-induced hearing loss or tinnitus); medications (there are hundreds of prescription medications that can cause tinnitus); and other health problems (allergies, tumors, and problems in the heart and blood vessels, jaws, and neck can all cause tinnitus). However, in many cases, an exact cause is never found. Conventional treatment may include hearing aids, medications or a change in medication that may be a suspected cause, masking devices to mask the noise, and treating underlying vascular problems that may be causing the condition.
In Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), there are different syndromes that lead to tinnitus, and the treatment approach will vary depending on which syndrome is identified as the cause. Tinnitus is generally differentiated according to excess or deficiency. Excess conditions can be caused by emotional stress causing heat in liver and gallbladder, leading to sudden onset of tinnitus with sounds of ocean waves or claps of thunder that may increase in severity with anger, stress, or frustration. Excessive consumption of alcohol and rich foods can cause an excess condition where there is a build-up of heat and phlegm which will lead to tinnitus accompanied by dizziness, heavy headedness, and excess phlegm.
Deficiency syndromes can be a result of a kidney essence deficiency due to poor physical constitution, over work, and extended illness. This condition typically results in tinnitus that is more of a high-pitched buzzing experienced intermittently and worsening at night. Poor diet and excessive work leads us to another deficiency syndrome causing a weakness in the spleen and stomach. This syndrome causes tinnitus that is most commonly aggravated by overwork, and there can also be a sensation of emptiness and coolness within the ears. A person with spleen and stomach deficiency will also experience fatigue, poor appetite, and loose stools.
Tinnitus can be difficult to treat with acupuncture but it is an alternative worth considering, particularly for those who have had limited success with other treatments. Acupuncture seeks to address the underlying condition in order to resolve the problem. With excess conditions, the idea is to drain the energy from the area of excess so that it is more evenly dispersed throughout the body, whereas with deficiency conditions, acupuncture focuses on bringing energy to the area to build and strengthen a weak spot.
As with many complaints, treatment may often yield improvement in other seemingly-unrelated health symptoms within the body as well, because Chinese medicine tends to diagnose and treat groupings of symptoms that are typically seen together, rather than isolated symptoms. In fact, acupuncture can help us to better ‘tune in’ to our own bodies and become more aware of the various symptoms that may point towards an imbalance within the body, helping us to correct these imbalances early on before they lead to bigger health issues down the road.
James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, Kelowna, BC.