William Shatner said it almost drove him to suicide.
When it struck Peter Phua, however, it drove him to action and a startup company offering a new hope for sufferers around the world.
What the actor and the medical student share, along with millions of other around the world, is a condition called tinnitus — an unending ringing in the ears that victims say can drive them to the brink of insanity. It is believed to be triggered by the death of hearing cells resulting from long or sudden exposure to loud noises resulting in constant firing of brain cells. There is no known cure and existing treatments, at least those with some science behind them, are very expensive.
For Phua it started after an evening of loud music.
“It was just a regular night out for some live music,” he said in an interview. “I got the normal ringing in my ears after that, but for me it just never went away and resulted in a number of months of insomnia.
“I was being driven mad by the noise.”
Shatner, who has no connection with Phua’s company, was afflicted after standing too close to an explosion on the set of the original Star Trek. In a YouTube video he made for the American Tinnitus Association he said “There were days when I thought I wouldn’t survive because I was so tormented by this screeching in my head.”
For Phua, the pressures of medical school made it especially bad.
“It’s almost impossible to learn with this because your attention is reduced because so much of it is taken up by this noise,” he said. “It’s like a fire alarm going off in your head all the time.”
Using his McMaster training in evidence-based medicine Phua went looking for the latest information on treatments. He found many he classed as “snake oil” without any scientific evidence to back up their claims. Eventually one of his professors nudged him toward something called notched sound therapy.
“I looked at the evidence and there was reason to believe it might work,” Phua said.
The treatment is simple — determine the frequency of the tinnitus noise in the victim’s head and then expose him to a range of sound at other frequencies that eventually overcomes the unwanted noise.
The treatment isn’t new, but the leading version on the market now is based on an expensive proprietary player. What Phua and friend Adrian Green offer is a new way of getting that treatment to sufferers.
Green, with a background in math and computer engineering, has designed software that allows the therapy to be downloaded from a subscription-based Internet site. The sounds can then be moved to an MP3 player, burned onto a CD or stored on a computer.
Phua and Green have formed a startup company they’ve called AudioNotch.
“There are a lot of people out there marketing things that have no evidence behind them,” he said. “We’re taking this knowledge and trying to democratize it. Our goal is to free the information and make it easier to use.”
The treatment they’re offering the market comes either as music or a “white noise.”
“You listen to this for a couple of hours a day and the more you listen to it the better it gets,” Phua said. “We think the white noise might have a greater effect than the music.”
Their challenge now is to get the word of a possible new treatment out to their potential audience.
“We know this is going to be a niche product, but it’s a niche filled with people who are desperate for something that works.”
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