What we know for certain is that hearing loss is a medical condition that can be effectively treated, often with the use of hearing aids. The most common type of hearing loss is sensorineural hearing loss (about 90%) which is the result of damage to the inner ear. According to western medicine, science, and research, this damage is permanent and cannot be cured. However, this has been (and continues to be) disputed by practitioners of acupuncture who claim that this naturopathic method can restore hearing. So, does it really work?
Is Hearing Loss Permanent?
There is substantial research and information that details the auditory process and the science of hearing loss. Sensorineural hearing loss occurs when the cochlea or nerve pathways are impaired by exposure to loud noise, the aging process, or other medical conditions. Most commonly, hair cells in the cochlea are damaged and lose their ability to function. These hair cells are critical to the way we hear because they help translate soundwaves into electrical signals that are sent to the brain to process; this is how we understand what we hear.
Unlike other types of cells (for example skin cells), hair cells in the cochlea do not regenerate. Humans are born with all of the hair cells we will ever have which amounts to thousands in each ear. This means that damage to them is irreversible and that the hearing loss that is caused is then permanent. This is the common understanding of how hearing loss works according to western science.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a practice grounded in traditional Chinese medicine. According to Chinese philosophy, health is the harmonious flow of energy known as qi (pronounced chi) which moves through pathways in the body. It is believed that sickness is the result of an imbalance of this flow. The purpose of acupuncture is to restore the balance of this energy and stimulate the body’s natural ability to heal.
This happens by inserting thin needles into the body through the surface of the skin. These needles are placed strategically, at varying depths, in what is referred to as acupuncture points. There are 350 acupuncture points in the body along the pathways where qi is said to flow. By inserting these needles, it’s believed that the nervous system is stimulated and releases chemicals and hormones throughout the body which encourages healing. Acupuncture is commonly used to alleviate pain, stress, and boost overall wellness.
What does the research say?
Acupuncturists and other practitioners of Chinese medicine have for decades claimed that this practice can cure hearing loss but the evidence is lacking.
In research published in 2015 in the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, researchers analyzed data from 12 studies that focused on acupuncture therapy for nerve deafness. These studies included 527 participants and the findings are complicated. Researchers found that overall, acupuncture can improve the hearing for some people with hearing loss and works even better when combined with medication. However, the authors of this research cautioned jumping to the conclusion that acupuncture can cure hearing loss stating several flaws with this research including the following:
- Small sample size
- Lacking methodology
- Safety data not included
- Difficult to determine if the results are due to acupuncture alone, medication, placebo effect, or combination of all of these factors
- All of these studies were conducted in China where medicine is practiced differently
It is clear that there needs to be additional research that can clearly show the impact of acupuncture on hearing health.
Acupuncture and Tinnitus
The British Tinnitus Association analyzed the research on acupuncture as treatment for tinnitus. Reviewing 35 papers, they found no evidence that acupuncture is effective for tinnitus. However, there is documented evidence that acupuncture can help with chronic pain, discomfort, and stress management. This can benefit people who do experience tinnitus as stress can worsen it.
Should you try acupuncture?
Acupuncture has been used as an alternative, natural way to improve one’s health for centuries. There needs to be further research on acupuncture’s impact on hearing loss and tinnitus. It is possible that it could help. But the best way to address any hearing loss is to schedule an appointment with a hearing healthcare specialist!