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Acupuncture and other treatments that are applied as part of Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM, have been controversial in the United States and other contexts with a tradition of “Western” medicine. In some cases, the healing effects can be measured by mainstream research studies, but in other cases the healing effects are limited to the reports of people who feel benefits from treatment. Acupuncture can be used to treat a wide range of conditions, ranging from physical pain and internal conditions to mental health including depression and anxiety.
How should we measure the effects of these treatments? Many think of the results of acupuncture in terms of a placebo effect. Indeed, those who feel like they are being treated for a condition often miraculously are healed indeed, even when doctors are not making any known intervention. For instance, in research studies people may be prescribed medication that is actually a “sugar pill” in order to be part of the control group for a new pharmaceutical. Remarkably, even those who take the placebo pills have more successful rates of treatment than the general population! Though the medical community remains unable to explain this placebo effect, some wonder if a similar underlying process is occurring with some forms of TCM that are not measurable in the same cause-and-effect relationship.
When it comes to acupuncture, one of the many conditions that have been subject to treatment includes hearing loss. Could it be possible that inserting tiny needles into the body in precise locations could restore hearing ability? How about tinnitus, otherwise known as ringing in the ears? Finally, could the relatively rare condition of Sudden Hearing Loss might be treated by acupuncture? Let’s look at each of these conditions in turn and consider if acupuncture might be able to improve them.
Acupuncture and Hearing Loss
The most common form of hearing loss occurs due to a lifetime of exposure to sound. As we age, our ears have been inundated with sound for years, some of them loud, powerful, or high-pitched. Currently research is underway to determine if new treatments such as gene therapy, stem cell therapy, or drug therapy might be able to restore the damaged cells of the inner ear. Alas, Western medicine has not yet been able to discover a way to restore these damaged cells after that damage has taken place. When it comes to acupuncture, anecdotal evidence reaches back to the 1940s claiming that the practice has been able to relieve hearing loss or even deafness. However, the medical research supporting these claims are scanty. One study examined this relationship, but the treatments were not limited to acupuncture. Acupuncture was used in conjunction with drug therapy and herbal therapies, making it difficult to determine if the possible effects had to do with acupuncture or not.
Acupuncture and Tinnitus
When it comes to tinnitus, the results are somewhat different. Tinnitus is the condition of sound that comes from nowhere, due to hearing damage. The range of sounds does include “ringing,” the common experience of hearing a high-pitch squeal or cluster of high tones at once, but tinnitus can cause a range of sounds including roaring, buzzing, whirring, or others. Some research studies have discovered an effect of acupuncture on tinnitus, reducing the volume of that ringing in the ears or improving the perceived quality of life. Further research is necessary to isolate the effect of acupuncture apart from other therapies.
Acupuncture and Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SSHL) is a unique condition in which hearing is muffled or completely lost seemingly out of the blue. Not related to any known medical condition, hearing is lost or seriously compromised over a short period of time. Sometimes a person wakes up with hearing loss or the loss may begin with a sudden “pop,” and the hearing loss is commonly only in one ear. A study of acupuncture as a treatment for SSHL found that it was remarkably effective, completely restoring hearing ability among a few people and causing a marked improvement in many others. As with each of these other cases, a controlled experiment can give better information about the relation between acupuncture and treatment for SSHL.