A Shocking Tinnitus Therapy: Can Electric Tongue Stimulation Quiet Ringing In The Ears?


Could a small plastic paddle that emits tiny electrodes, placed on the tongue, offer relief for an estimated 15 million Americans with tinnitus? A preliminary experiment offers promise. An experiment of 326 tinnitus sufferers, conducted at the University of Minnesota, had the participants sitting for up to 1 hour at a time with a small plastic paddle on their tongue. 

According to ScienceMag.org, here’s how the tinnitus sufferers experienced relief: tiny electrodes in the paddle deliver an electrical current. The purpose of the current is to stimulate the brain, which is the main organ thought to be responsible for hearing phantom sounds or ringing in the ears. It is thought the brain overcompensates for hearing loss, which is a symptom often accompanied with tinnitus, especially among combat veterans

Other experiments have combined sound with electric shock. The purpose of this so-called “bimodal” stimulation is to correct faulty neuron patterns. But what makes this one novel is that it’s first to apply electrodes directly to the tongue. The lead researcher discovered by trial and error that the tongue is the best part of the body to stimulate, in order to dampen or even eliminate tinnitus. 

Participants in the study reported that the sensation of the electroshock tongue therapy was akin to eating fizzy pop rock candy. The subjects also wore headphones that played a combination of rapidly changing tones at different frequencies and background electronic music. The purpose of playing these sounds together is distracting the brain and suppressing the activity that causes tinnitus. 

The participants received the tongue shock therapy for 12 weeks. Over 80% of them experienced dramatic improvements with their tinnitus symptoms. More good news: after a year, the participants who had good outcomes at the 12-week level still had lower tinnitus severity scores. At the end of the 12-week experiment, the group who experienced positive results had on average a 14-point reduction on the 1-100 tinnitus severity score. 

How do these results compare to other bimodal stimulation studies? At first glance, tongue stimulation is better. For starters, the effects of this new technique are longer lasting. A 2018 study that involved neck and cheek stimulation saw a dip in severity scores that was only half of the tongue stimulation study.  

And in comparison to cognitive behavioral therapy, the only clinically-validated tinnitus therapy, tongue stimulation improves severity scores by 4 points higher on average.

The catch is that this recent experiment did not have a control group, thus, more research is needed before any definitive conclusions are made. However, the preliminary findings give tinnitus sufferers hope for an efficacious, viable future therapy.A Shocking Tinnitus Treatment: Can Electric Brain Stimulation Quiet Ringing In The Ears? 

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