Tinnitus Drives Sufferers to Distraction, Desperation

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Tinnitus Can Start Anytime in Life; Di Meola's Worse Since Childhood

Although Shatner's tinnitus started in adulthood, Di Meola said his began when he was just 7, and fell on his head in the driveway of his family's Bergenfield, N.J., home, fracturing his skull.

"Anyone who slams their head onto any kind of hard surface or pavement, you're going to hear ringing," he said in an interview early Wednesday from Turkey, where he had just performed on a world tour. "There's a percentage of people where it may eventually go away. For me, it persisted."

Di Meola, now 57, said his tinnitus has worsened. "I'm at a critical level, I don't know if I can stand it anymore. It's been getting scarier and scarier," he said. Although he does well while playing, his worst moments come "in a quiet room and no one is there. You can go insane."

Di Meola, who believes he had a genetic predisposition to tinnitus because his father and several uncles also had it, has seen many specialists. He's tried acupuncture, experimental stem cell treatments, and tried techniques "in which you hear other tones that take your attention off the one that's in your head." None worked for him.

Custom-made noise-reducing earplugs help when he attends others' concerts but interfere with what he needs to hear when he's onstage. He's taken several steps to protect his ears when he's onstage or in the recording studio. He plays more acoustic guitar than the electric guitar that made him famous as a member of "Return to Forever" with Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke. He puts up large Plexiglas screens to shield his ears from the loudness of snare drums. He turns monitors to face away from him.

But he's reached a point "where I may have to take a long period of time off to try and experiment with different types of therapies that are probably not going to do much, but I have to try it," he said, "because if this gets any worse, it's pretty much game over."

Despite the dark moments, though, he clings to "a ray of hope" that something will work. One experimental approach that could hold promise has worked so far in animals and is being tested in a small human trial in Belgium. It combines low-dose electrical brain stimulation through the vagus nerve with tones fed through ear phones. Together, these "cancel out the tinnitus signal," said Born.

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