Tinnitus an Unacknowledged, Underfunded Public Health Crisis

A press release in honor of Tinnitus Awareness Week

PORTLAND, OR – May 18-24 is national Tinnitus Awareness Week and the American Tinnitus Association (ATA) is using the occasion to call attention to the prevalence and human impact of the condition popularly referred to as “ringing in the ears.”  Millions of Americans struggle with tinnitus—often to a debilitating degree—making it one of the most common health conditions in the country.  Unfortunately, the government’s response to tinnitus has not been commensurate to the size of the problem.

By the U.S. Government’s own findings, tinnitus is a major health issue in America. The Centers for Disease Control’s 2011-2012 National Health and Nutrition Examinations Survey (the most recent year from which data is available) suggests that nearly 15% of the public—over 45 million Americans—experience some form of tinnitus. Within the survey population reporting tinnitus, 67% have had regular symptoms for over a year, 26% have constant or near constant tinnitus, and over 30% classify tinnitus as a “moderate” to “very big” problem in their life.  Extrapolating these findings to the national population suggests that nearly 20 million people are dealing with burdensome tinnitus on a regular basis.   

“Sadly, these estimates are still probably on the conservative end,” said Cara James, Executive Director of the American Tinnitus Association. “Because the CDC survey only includes respondents between 20 and 69 years of age, it excludes our more senior citizens, who are most likely to have tinnitus in general and severe cases in particular. Clearly, tinnitus constitutes a health crisis, with significant personal, economic, and social costs.”

Tinnitus is connected to a series of other conditions that negatively impact patients’ quality of life, including sleep problems, depression, anxiety, hearing loss, and social isolation. The financial consequences of tinnitus are huge. Personal economic loss to an individual with tinnitus—including lost earnings, productivity and health expenses—can be up to $30,000 annually.  The yearly cost to society as a whole has been estimated at $26 billion.  

Despite the prevalence, impact, and cost of tinnitus, the condition remains largely underfunded as a topic for federally-funded research.  Non-governmental organizations and the private sector have made promising inroads in research, but the lack of robust federal funding stifles the pace of innovation towards a tinnitus cure. Moreover, tinnitus is not typically covered as a reimbursable medical condition, either in Medicare or Medicaid. As a consequence, millions of Americans do not have access to existing, proven tinnitus management services.

 “The American Tinnitus Association is working to advance the research and available healthcare services that best serve the needs of tinnitus patients,” continued Cara James. “The patient community has been overwhelmingly generous in supporting this mission, but the U.S. government needs to play a bigger role as a catalyst for action.  It’s time for the feds, both as funders of research and as payers for medical services, to allocate resources that meet the needs of America’s 45 million tinnitus patients.”