That Viral Reddit Video Isn't Going to Cure Your Tinnitus

Tinnitus sucks but there are more practical treatments available.

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Apr 6 2017, 12:00pm

Tinnitus, a chronic ringing in the ears, can be a torturous condition for many people, so it's not surprising that they'll try just about anything that might provide relief. But a recent video based on a popular Reddit theory claims it has found the cure: tapping your fingers on the back of your skull.

"I don't think it's total BS," said Dan Polley, a Harvard researcher and the director of the Lauer Tinnitus Research Center. "There's some logic to it: it falls into a class of therapy called maskers."

Maskers are usually devices that can be placed in the ear like a hearing aid that emits sound, or else just a specific type of soundtrack that a person can listen to (like rainfall, or a fan). The sound can temporarily suppress the noise of tinnitus, and Polley said that it appears that's what's happening in the video, only a more manual version.

Polley explained that some individuals with hearing loss have damage to the middle bones in their ear, so regular hearing aids don't work—the sound would just travel to the middle ear and got lost like everything else. These individuals sometimes use special devices called bone anchored hearing aids, which transmit sound through bone vibration directly through the cochlea (the inner ear), rather than through the outer and middle ears.

The people in the video are tapping the spot on the skull exactly where these bone anchored hearing aids go, which made Polley suppose that the tapping is generating sound vibrations to the cochlea that mask the tinnitus in the same way other maskers function.

"I'd be surprised if it was more than that," Polley told me.

But while it may be helpful for some people, calling the technique a "cure" is misleading, according to Richard Tyler, a professor of otolaryngology at the University of Iowa.

"The problem is that lots of people have this and there is no pill that will make it go away and there is no surgery that will make it go away," Tyler said. "So people are very desperate."

This particular solution is free and both experts told me it seemed pretty harmless, but there are plenty of unproven "cures" being hawked online that take advantage of people's desperation. Though the Reddit technique could provide some short-term relief, Tyler and Polley both recommended seeking out treatments that have been more rigorously studied, such as music apps that can help retrain your brain to quiet the tinnitus signals, or hearing aids that can help cancel out the noise.

"It's unlikely to have a negative consequence and if somebody's happy doing this 10 times a day to get 10 minutes of relief then so be it," Tyler told me. "But to think it's going to have some major long lasting effect is a misconception."

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