Should you try acupuncture for hearing loss or tinnitus?
What the research shows
While medical science has yet to figure out a way to repair sensorineural hearing loss caused by age or noise, some users of acupuncture, a key component of Traditional Chinese Medicine, claim it has restorative properties for both hearing loss and tinnitus. However, there's a lack of Western medical science indicating it works.
What is acupuncture?
According to the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, acupuncture is a method of encouraging the body’s natural healing and function by inserting very thin needles and applying heat and electrical impulses in a very precise manner.
When specific acupuncture points are needled, it's thought to stimulate the nervous system, releasing chemicals to the muscles, spinal cord and brain. These chemicals trigger the release of other chemicals and hormones which stimulate the body’s natural healing abilities, according to AAMA.
While that may be the case, more research is needed. "The effects of acupuncture on the brain and body and how best to measure them are only beginning to be understood," explains the federally funded National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine.
Can acupuncture help with hearing loss?
Various reports from as far back as the 1940s claim acupuncture has cured deafness, sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL) and tinnitus.
When looking at the clinical evidence, though, the results are more muddled.
Authors of research published in the February 2015 issue of International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Medicine reviewed 12 studies to determine “the efficacy and safety of acupuncture in treating sensorineural hearing loss.” They concluded that acupuncture can improve hearing in some patients with sensorineural hearing loss, especially when combined with medication.
However, due to the small sample study and lack of data assessing safety, the authors recommend further study. Also worth keeping in mind is that the studies were conducted in China, where medicine is practiced differently than in the U.S.
Lastly and perhaps most importantly: Because the treatment was often used in conjunction with medication or herbal remedies, it's hard to tease out what was helping: the acupuncture, the medicines, the placebo effect, or some combination thereof.
Should I try acupuncture for sudden hearing loss?
Some studies in China also have looked at acupuncture to treat sudden hearing loss, also known as sudden deafness. In a 2006 study, for example, about two-thirds of 63 participants experienced a "therapeutic effect" from the treatment. The researchers concluded that milder cases were more likely to achieve a positive result.
But again, the study has some notable limitations: It was small, and there was no control group to compare the results against. That's important because in some cases, this type of hearing loss often resolves on its own, so it's impossible to say if the acupuncture or time itself was the remedy in this study. (If you are experiencing sudden deafness, seek medical care immediately.)
What about acupuncture for tinnitus?
The British Tinnitus Association reviewed the research on acupuncture for tinnitus and concluded "there is no evidence that this treatment is effective."
However, it may be effective indirectly as an anxiety treatment. Because stress can trigger or worsen tinnitus, learning ways to cope with stress (and anxiety) is an important tinnitus relief tool. As VeryWellMind.com puts it, "Acupuncturists and medical professionals are unclear exactly why it helps with anxiety, but research has noted that acupuncture appears to have a calming effect."
It's also worth noting that for chronic pain, acupuncture has been proven to help in clinical trials. The studies were well-done and showed benefit beyond the placebo effect. Pain can trigger stress, which can trigger tinnitus, so again, it may be a therapy that helps tinnitus patients indirectly.
Is acupuncture right for me?
Although Chinese medicine practitioners have been using acupuncture to treat hearing loss and deafness for centuries, most medical professionals caution that further study is required.
So, as with most alternative therapies, the answer is "it might help." The risks to your health are low (in rare cases, the needles can lead to an infection). Just keep in mind that acupuncture can be expensive and is rarely covered by health insurance.
If you aren’t hearing your best, schedule an appointment with a qualified hearing healthcare professional. If you are diagnosed with hearing loss, discuss your treatment options and let your provider know of your interest in alternative therapies.