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Imagine for a moment that you go to the doctor and are ushered into a soothing room with warm temperature, earthy scents, and low lighting. The doctor asks you to lie down on a soft table and proceeds to insert tiny needles into your body! This treatment is not uncommon at all, and participation in acupuncture is on the rise in the United States, but some people are stricken with fear at even the thought of so many needles. Despite some individuals’ resistance to this kind of treatment, acupuncture is remarkably effective at treating some physical and mental conditions. Recent studies have considered whether or not acupuncture can treat conditions that have been considered irreversible in Western medicine: hearing loss and other hearing-related maladies. Let’s take a look at the basic principles of acupuncture and some of the possibilities for treating hearing-related conditions.
Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine
Traditional Chinese Medicine (or TCM) is a system of healing practices that observe quite different principles than traditional Western medicine. One of the crucial differences between the two is to think of physical and mental health as part of the same system rather than distinct from one another. Western medicine tends to separate elements into variables that can be isolated and treated without considering the network of related conditions that might affect one another. The prevalence of “stress-related” conditions in Western medical traditions is evidence that separating one condition from another has limited effectiveness indeed. TCM is much more effective at treating holistic health, considering if lifestyle or mental conditions are related to physical ills. The process of acupuncture itself might be frightening to a person with a phobia of needles, and indeed it requires a person to have tiny needles pressed into the body at shallow depth in precise locations. These needles stimulate that nervous system to catalyze a chemical and hormonal reaction in the body. When the needles are inserted, the nerves send messages to the brain to respond with certain healing processes in other parts of the body, and the location of the needles are not always directly related to the location of the problem. For instance, in treatment for hearing loss, needles would not only be placed on the ear itself. Other locations in the nervous system can have a relation with the brain’s ability to release chemicals with healing properties.
Hearing Loss, Tinnitus, and Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SSHL)
Although acupuncture has been remarkably effective with a wide range of conditions in the body and mind, how does it do with something as difficult to treat as hearing loss? Though clinical trials are currently underway involving gene therapy, stem cell therapy, and drug therapy, Western medicine has not yet discovered a way to restore hearing ability once it has been lost. Remarkably, some isolated reports dating back to the 1940s claim that acupuncture was able to cure total deafness! Despite skepticism about the veracity of that study, current research is promising on the effectiveness of acupuncture to treat hearing-related conditions. One of the problems with current research is that it tends to study acupuncture as part of a holistic approach to healing involving herbal remedies and other lifestyle changes, and it is difficult to disentangle the effects of acupuncture in isolation. Some of the most promising reports involve two hearing-related conditions: tinnitus and Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (or SSHL). In the first case, acupuncture was said to reduce the volume of ringing in the ears and other troublesome constant noises that are symptoms of tinnitus. Others with tinnitus found that acupuncture was effective to improve the overall feeling of well being that had been compromised by frustrations related to tinnitus. In the case of SSHL, the mystery surrounding the condition persists. These patients have a sudden partial or total loss of hearing, often in only one ear, and doctors cannot trace the condition to a sudden noise-related or other medical event. Remarkably, acupuncture has had good results with this condition, restoring some hearing or complete hearing ability in some study participants. More research with controlled clinical trials will be necessary to determine the overall effectiveness of acupuncture to cure hearing loss and these other related conditions.