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Living a normal life with tinnitus

By Karen Doss Bowman January 15, 2016
Debbie Bowe is living a normal life with tinnitus

Debbe Bowe is living a normal life with tinnitus thanks to treatment at Duke.

Tinnitus tormented Debbie Bowe, but neither her family doctor, nor her ear, nose, and throat specialists (ENTs) could help. A customized treatment plan developed by Duke audiologist Rebecca Price, AuD, gave Bowe her first taste of hope and relief. “Tinnitus is no longer running my life,” Bowe said. “Duke and Rebecca saved my life.”

Noise in the head

No one else could hear the loud, piercing sounds that drove Debbie Bowe to panic attacks for the first time in her life in late 2011. The high-pitched screeching sound, which she described as “18 tea kettles screaming at once,” was all in her head. But it was real. It was the roaring scream of tinnitus.

Bowe’s condition caused extreme anxiety. Unable to sleep, Bowe often paced all night or tried falling asleep in the bathroom with the shower running to mask the noise. She took a leave of absence from her IT job at a hospital.

“Tinnitus is a life changer,” said Bowe of Hertford, NC. “I just can’t express how insidious it is. I didn’t know how long I could go on and live with this torment.”

Ringing in the ears

Tinnitus is a constant sound a person hears that is not caused by external factors. Often described as “ringing in the ears,” tinnitus can sound like buzzing, hissing, clicking, swooshing or humming.

More than 50 million Americans experience tinnitus, and nearly 20 million of those cases are considered chronic, according to the American Tinnitus Association. For two million Americans like Bowe, the condition is extreme and debilitating. Most cases of tinnitus are caused by hearing loss, but the condition also can be caused by allergies, heart disease, jaw problems like TMJ or neck conditions. Some medications may cause tinnitus. There is no cure for the condition.

“When a person’s brain is searching for missing auditory signals due to hearing loss or another condition, it creates its own sounds,” explained Duke audiologist Rebecca Price, AuD. “Tinnitus results when the brain is trying to make sound to fill in the gaps.”

Non-invasive sound therapy provides relief

Bowe first sought treatment from both her family physician and from ear, nose, and throat specialists (ENTs) near her hometown. No one could help.

“I felt completely alone and hopeless,” Bowe said.

After learning about Duke’s Tinnitus Clinic, Bowe made the three-hour, one-way trek to meet with Price. During the initial 90-minute appointment, which included a round of hearing tests to identify the pitch and volume of Bowe’s tinnitus, Price determined that Bowe was a good candidate for Neuromonics Oasis. The FDA-approved sound therapy device, which resembles an iPod, is programmed with customized music that desensitizes the patient to their unique tinnitus.

“Think of it like a ceiling fan,” Price said. “You can walk into a room and hear the fan, but within five minutes you don't hear it anymore. We strive to help our patients train their brains, through sound therapy, to treat the tinnitus like a ceiling fan where the noise is just in the background.”

Within months of starting treatment, Bowe’s tinnitus was dramatically reduced.

“Duke and Rebecca saved my life,” Bowe said. “Rebecca was phenomenal. Her assessment, understanding, support and confidence were my first tastes of hope in this torturous ordeal. She was a godsend. Once I met her, I no longer felt alone.” 

Comprehensive approach to tinnitus care and treatment

The Duke Tinnitus Clinic is one of the few clinics in the Eastern U.S. dedicated to treating tinnitus. Each year, its specialists evaluate hundreds of patients for tinnitus, and offer a variety of treatments, including hearing aids and sound-based therapies. The clinic frequently recommends psychological management through cognitive behavioral therapy. People with tinnitus may also be referred to Duke Integrative Medicine for alternative therapies such as acupuncture, massage, meditation and nutrition counseling.  

Bowe now helps other patients learning to cope with tinnitus by offering moral support and sharing tips for relief. Mostly, she wants to assure them that they are not alone.

“I try to give hope to other tinnitus patients,” Bowe says. “I still have tinnitus, and it can become annoying at times. But I have a totally normal life now. That’s the miracle of how Duke saved my life.”

Learn more about tinnitus treatment at Duke

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