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Ringing In Your Ears? Finally, Researchers Finding New Clues About Tinnitus

Alan Starr, an audio engineer, has tinnitus as a result of the Boston Marathon bombing. (Courtesy of Alan Starr)

Alan Starr, an audio engineer, has tinnitus as a result of the Boston Marathon bombing. (Courtesy of Alan Starr)

By Richard Knox

Alan Starr remembers being blown back by the bomb’s force. He had come to watch a friend cross the Boston Marathon finish line on that fateful April day.

Starr, a 52-year-old audio engineer who makes his living by his ears, suffered no visible injury. But, like at least 70 other marathon bombing victims, he’s left with a never-ending reminder of that moment — a death knell that never stops ringing in his head.

“It’s a very high pitch like a whistle,” he says. “It doesn’t waver. It’s just constant, 24/7.”

It’s called tinnitus, and it’s beginning to get the attention it deserves.

Nearly a million veterans suffer from tinnitus. 

This is partly due to the Boston Marathon bombings. Starr and a few dozen other bombing victims are participating in studies supported by the One Fund, created to help bombing victims, that are aimed at devising an effective treatment.

An even more powerful driver of tinnitus research is the enormous incidence of the problem among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who’ve suffered blast damage. Nearly a million veterans suffer from tinnitus. That makes it the leading service-related disability — far outstripping PTSD.

And tinnitus — most often pronounced TIN-uh-tiss — is surprisingly common in the general population. At least one in every six Americans suffers from tinnitus — around 50 million people. Of these, the condition is “burdensome” for 20 million, according to the American Tinnitus Foundation. Two million of them have severe, disabling tinnitus, often accompanied by depression.

The problem has no cure and no very effective treatment. But after decades of dead-end research, scientists are beginning to figure out what causes the constant ringing, whistling, whooshing or hissing that makes sufferers feel trapped inside their own heads.

New research is providing some surprising clues. Continue reading