CQ HEALTHBEAT

A medical device company that specializes in tinnitus treatment is slated to receive $1 million through the Department of Defense to study treatment of the condition for military service members.

Proposed topics of study include the effectiveness of tinnitus treatments in the military population as well as the possibility of developing other treatments for service members, said Rick Giancola, director and CEO of Neuromonics based in Pennsylvania. "This is a condition that is quite prevalent in the military as well as the civilian population," Giancola said.

Tinnitus, or the perception of sound - usually ringing, hissing or buzzing - is most commonly caused by noise exposure, said Jennifer DuPriest, spokeswoman for the American Tinnitus Association.

One in six people have tinnitus, Giancola said. The condition is almost always associated with high frequency hearing loss, he said. "The brain is trying to compensate for that hearing loss by turning up the sensitivity in the frequency range," he said. "What you perceive that sensitivity to be is that ringing sound."

The military population is disproportionately affected both because of the nature of combat and training exposing people to loud noises and also due to head and neck injuries, DuPriest said.

For soldiers, the degree of exposure to impulse-type noises such as the firing of weapons, mortar attacks and improvised explosives devices, is greater than for average civilians, said Vickie Tuten, an audiologist and staff officer at the Proponency Office for Preventive Medicine in the Office of the Surgeon General.

Approximately 390,900 veterans had service-related tinnitus in 2006, according to the American Tinnitus Association, which cites numbers from the Department of Veterans Affairs. By 2011, the association estimates that this number will rise to 818,811.

And in 2006, the cost to Veterans Affairs for tinnitus disability compensation was $539 million, the association said, adding that by 2011, the cost will reach $1.1 billion.

Most soldiers who have tinnitus report noticing it during quiet periods, but for others, the tinnitus is more constant, interfering with sleep and the ability to hear conversations, Tuten said. And many soldiers don't report tinnitus until they leave service, not wanting to report symptoms that seem insignificant, she said.

Many patients are told to simply learn to live with tinnitus, and that's not an acceptable response, said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., who sponsored a line item for the funding to Neuromonics in last year's Defense appropriations bill. He said he heard about the tinnitus issue from troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Without question there is a need for this type of research and treatment," Dent said. "It’s important for the Defense Department to invest in that treatment."

Neuromonics tinnitus treatment is an approximately six month regimen that includes patients listening to music modified with white noise that is emitted from a device that looks like an MP3 player, which teaches the brain to ignore tinnitus, Giancola said. The device costs on average less than $3,000 per patient in addition to service charges from clinics, Giancola said.