WHEELING – Sufferers of tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, are reporting significant improvement through a management program offered by Wheeling Hospital’s Center for Tinnitus and Decreased Sound Tolerance.

Wheeling Hospital storeroom employee Ken Ensinger, of Shadyside, said the treatment he has received at the center "gave me back my life."

Board-certified Audiologist Dr. Brandon Lichtman, director of the center, said, "Those who have qualified for the tinnitus management protocols have shown significant improvement. "Of those going through the management protocols, the average functional index score averaged 62 prior to management on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being the worst. At the time of their two week follow-up, the average score improved to 34. That’s an improvement of nearly 50 percent."

A former 27-year employee of an aluminum manufacturing plant, Ensinger’s tinnitus was so bad that his original index score was in the 80s. And the volume of the tinnitus, on a scale of 1-10, was an 8. "It was almost drowning everyone out. I had to read lips," he said. "I was not in a good frame of mind – very depressed."

Less than two months after treatment began, Ensinger’s index score has dropped into the 30s. What started out as a sound of loud crickets 24/7, is now reduced to a slight sound of air hissing and the volume on a "bad" day is 3.

"I actually have days when I have no hissing at all," said the 61-year-old Ensinger. "It just gradually shut off. The first time that happened, I was in tears. My record is five days in a row of no noise. And the most awesome thing in the world is to listen to absolutely nothing."

Tinnitus is the perception of sound within the ears and/or head not caused by an external sound source. Some classify tinnitus as a ringing, buzzing, crickets and narrowband noise. While there is no current "cure" for tinnitus, proper diagnostic testing, coupled with proper management techniques, can significantly reduce the awareness, loudness and annoyance of tinnitus.

Wheeling Hospital’s Center for Tinnitus and Decreased Sound Tolerance opened in 2018 and is the only one of its kind in West Virginia. And Lichtman is the only audiologist in West Virginia to earn the prestigious certificate in tinnitus and decreased sound tolerance by the American Board of Audiology.

When a patient is seen at the center, a detailed case history is completed. Patients will also complete the Tinnitus Functional Index which assesses eight areas:

intrusiveness of tinnitus

sense of control

cognitive interference

sleep disturbance

auditory issues

relaxation issues

quality of life

emotional distress

This program is individualized for each patient. It includes specialized testing and management options, which better help patients manage and reduce their awareness, loudness and annoyance of tinnitus. Patients utilize progressive tinnitus management techniques, otoharmonics or neuromonics technology, or other sound enrichment options depending on their needs.

"We follow tinnitus patients closely for up to 18 months, but are always available if needed even after that time period," Lichtman said. "We have some patients who may not be candidates for tinnitus management; however, just coming in to have a detailed explanation of tinnitus helps demystify this phenomenon."

The prevalence and severity of tinnitus increase with age and is greatest in the age population of 60-69; however, tinnitus occurs in children as well. For some, tinnitus has no definitive cause, but research shows 90 percent of chronic tinnitus sufferers have some degree of hearing loss. Other causes of tinnitus include TMJ and cervical spine disorders.

Approximately 45 million Americans report the perception of tinnitus, with 30 percent reporting as a significant daily problem.

Ensinger said when he first met Lichtman, "He told me he could improve my quality of life by a long shot. He was right. I’m a different person now, and I feel 10 years younger."

In order to be seen in the Center for Tinnitus and Decreased Sound Tolerance, a referral from a primary care physician is required. For information, call 304-243-7879.