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Hearing loss and the benefits of acupuncture

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Once you’ve got it, you’ve got to learn to live with it – and strap on a device to help you do so. That’s the usual medical thinking around hearing loss, which currently afflicts one in five people – some 48 million – in the US, and one in six, or 11 million people in Britain.

The primary medical solution to hearing loss is the mechanical replacement of hearing with one of a number of hearing aids. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and have been devised to help with a number of hearing issues.

Besides the discrete ones that sit inside or just outside your ears, for more severe and permanent hearing loss, where sound doesn’t reach your inner ear, there are a range of ‘bone-anchored’ hearing aids involving operations to implant a device in your head, including one called an auditory brainstem implant, where electrical signals are sent directly to the brain, or middle ear implants, where the microphone’s signals are sent directly to the middle ear.

The most well-known of these is the cochlear implant, a two-part affair consisting of a microphone that sits behind the ear and picks up sound, converting it into electrical signals, which then travel along a wire to a device on the skin.

These electrical signals are then picked up by the second device surgically implanted inside the skull, which then sends the signals on to the cochlea, the spiral cavity in the inner ear responsible for producing nerve impulses as a response to any vibrations from sound.

These devices can restore hearing to the profoundly deaf, particularly children born with or developing deafness under age 3, 80-90 percent of whom are said to develop speech and hearing equal to those of children born with normal hearing. Bottom line, though, is they’re clumsy, requiring that you take off the microphone component before swimming or bathing, as it will be damaged if it gets wet.

Implants don’t come without complications, either, and can cause nerve damage leading to facial paralysis, changes in the sense of taste, leaking of fluid around the brain, dizziness and problems with balance, tinnitus, and believe it or not, loss of the hearing you may have left.

Then there is the surgery for conditions labeled ‘nerve deafness,’ called ‘stapedectomy,’ where the stapes, or stirrup bones of the ear, are replaced. As with every operation, things can go wrong, and it’s not unknown for patients to suffer perforation of the ear drum or injury to the facial nerves, problems again with vertigo and sense of taste, and yes, hearing loss. And like a knee or hip replacement, the false stapes can wear out or migrate, necessitating a ‘revision’ operation, with less favorable results than the original.

As ingenious as all these devices and procedures are, the simple fact is that a hearing aid can never completely master the complexity of sound perceived by the human ear. Testimony to that is the sheer number of patients who take out their hearing aids regularly rather than being subjected to a bombardment of sound – my grandmother, who preferred getting screamed at by her family rather than wear hers, being a particularly apt example.

As for tinnitus, treatments are essentially negligible, as medicine relies on giving patients low doses of antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs like Valium with the frequent addition of steroids shoved into the middle ear in an attempt to suppress the symptoms.

But now, in our cover story this month (page 56), Cate Montana has unearthed the extraordinary fact that scalp acupuncture, where the acupuncturist inserts tiny needles on specific points solely in the scalp, has an excellent track record for healing or improving all sorts of ‘permanent’ disabilities, especially neurological ones, including hearing loss and tinnitus.

To cite just one example from a German case study, published in the German medical journal Forschende Komplementa’šrmedizin, two patients presented with sudden sensorineural healing loss (SSHL), a 22-year-old male college student and a 48-year-old pilot, both complaining of tinnitus, severe hearing loss and fullness of the ear. Medical treatment had only made matters worse.

The student was treated with scalp acupuncture and electroacupuncture (when the needles are attached to electrodes) for five days, and the pilot for seven. After a single treatment, the student had greatly improved, and by 10 treatments, he had entirely recovered, and the pilot had greatly improved as well.

As for tinnitus, a controlled trial comparing patients getting acupuncture versus no treatment found that acupuncture led to a statistically significant improvement in the condition.

Although reviews of the literature have found flaws in some of the studies, if the experiences of practitioners are anything to go by, conventional doctors would do well to prick up their ears.

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Article Topics: Ear
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