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The Past, Present, and Future of the American Tinnitus Association

Sherlock, LaGuinn P. AuD; Brazell, Torryn P. MS, CAE

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000527212.59312.ff
American Tinnitus Association
Free

Dr. Sherlock, left, is the chair of the American Tinnitus Association (ATA) board of directors, and a research audiologist at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for the Army Public Health Center. Ms. Brazell is ATA's executive director and chief operating officer.

Did you know the American Tinnitus Association (ATA) has been serving those with tinnitus and hyperacusis for 46 years? It started as a volunteer organization in 1971. The exact details have been lost to the winds of time, but the idea of ATA came from Charles Unice, MD, a Downey, CA, physician who had tinnitus. He recognized the need for an organization to fundraise for tinnitus research, and, sometime between 1971 and 1973, he learned of the work of Jack Vernon, PhD. At the time, Vernon was a tinnitus researcher and the director of the Kresge Hearing Research Laboratory at the University of Oregon Medical School.

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ATA became a joint passion and venture, founded by Unice and Vernon and was located at the University of Oregon Medical School in Portland in the mid-1970s.

There's a popular story in ATA folklore that centers on the day when the researcher and the physician were having lunch together in Portland. As they were walking to lunch, Unice stopped next to a water fountain. When Vernon asked why, he explained that he could not hear his tinnitus over the melodic bubbling of the fountain water. A few years later, in 1975, Vernon published a call for volunteers in the ATA newsletter to conduct a study on the masking effects of running water. Vernon subsequently designed a wearable tinnitus masker, facilitating clinical tinnitus management.

ATA was incorporated as a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization in 1979. This enabled the organization to employ staff to help fulfill its fundamental mission of finding a cure for tinnitus. ATA gained recognition as various celebrities raised awareness of tinnitus, including the rock group STYX and actors Lou Ferrigno, William Christopher, Tony Randall, and William Shatner, who serves as an honorary director on the ATA's board of directors. News coverage, including articles in Parade, Newsweek, and other publications, also increased awareness. In 1986, a letter written by then-executive director of ATA, Gloria Reich, appeared in Ann Landers’ newspaper column, prompting more than 120,000 letters to ATA.

ATA members are the backbone of the organization and the reason we do what we do. Members also provide the funding for ATA's mission through annual membership dues, donations, and bequests. Funds raised by ATA members are critical for funding the research that will identify possible cures for tinnitus.

ATA also works to improve the lives of people with tinnitus and related disorders through education, support, and advocacy. Let's look at the past, present, and future of these goals.

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EDUCATION

ATA has a long history of educating several constituencies: health care providers, people experiencing tinnitus, and people who support those experiencing tinnitus. In the early years, ATA sponsored regional workshops to train providers, and we look forward to resuming this effort to increase the availability of multi-disciplinary help for people experiencing problems associated with bothersome tinnitus. The ATA website offers a wealth of information for patients, providers, and the public, as does our publication, Tinnitus Today. The magazine is printed three times a year, and is filled with thoughtful and well-researched articles about treatment options, management strategies, and current research. We also have a popular and free podcast series called Conversations in Tinnitus, which feature guest speakers from various walks of life who are trying to make a difference in tinnitus patient care, science, and advocacy.

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SUPPORT

As with other medical conditions that have no cure, such as diabetes, people who are experiencing tinnitus need support. Most often, the first thing someone is looking for is a health care provider. ATA offers this resource to members and others who need help finding a health care provider in their area who understands and can help them cope with tinnitus. In the near future, detailed information about the scope and qualifications of the various health care professionals will be added so that patients can make better-informed decisions about with whom they can work to manage their tinnitus. Information about the providers will also be expanded to include experience and caseload. Our goal is to expand the provider list to include more behavioral health professionals, as recommended in the Clinical Practice Guideline of the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Foundation and based on research providing strong evidence that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an effective tinnitus management strategy.

ATA also provides access to a national support network, which is valuable to those experiencing tinnitus (http://bit.ly/2hIdQK3). While ATA does not facilitate its own support groups, we provide resources to those who do. For example, we offer a comprehensive Support Group Leader Guide, also available on our website, to anyone interested in beginning a support group. Through our ATA support group liaison, we're able to provide general guidance to others with tinnitus. If a person with tinnitus cannot find a support group in his or her area or just feels more comfortable contacting us, he or she can email or call ATA staff, who will provide compassion, experience, and perspective, as well as useful resources for treating tinnitus (https://www.ata.org/contact).

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ADVOCACY

In the early 2000s, ATA hired a lobbyist to work alongside staff and volunteers to advocate for funding for tinnitus research, specifically in Washington, DC. This effort resulted in a significant increase in federal funding for tinnitus research, as well as raised awareness about the condition and its sometimes debilitating effect on those who have it. Our advocacy efforts also include increasing public awareness about tinnitus and building support systems.

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FUNDING RESEARCH

ATA is the only nonprofit organization specifically funding tinnitus research. Our first research grant was made in 1980 to Mary Meikle to develop the Tinnitus Data Registry, which is still used today. As of this year, ATA has provided nearly $6 million USD in seed grants to fund over 125 projects designed to uncover the causes of tinnitus and potential cures. We fund the research of experienced scientists and students whose work has led to developments in sound therapy and behavioral therapies, as well as exploration of electrical stimulation, transcranial magnetic stimulation, hypnosis, and drugs for treatment of tinnitus. Researchers also have explored the anatomical sources and pathophysiology of tinnitus through animal models, imaging studies, and electrophysiological measures (http://bit.ly/2hHzCxA).

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WHAT'S NEXT?

Via this issue of The Hearing Journal, we are pleased to announce that ATA is moving its headquarters from Portland, OR, to the Washington, DC, metro area, to be closer to the epicenter of tinnitus research and the organizations that support those most affected by the condition. The new Northern Virginia office puts ATA near the Veterans Administration (VA), the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), and the Department of Defense (DoD), as well as other organizations, hospitals, and laboratories that are leaders in tinnitus research, funding, and advocacy.

This headquarters move will help us continue the work started four decades ago to understand the complex nature of tinnitus, propel research to develop more effective treatments and possible cures, provide support and relief to those bothered by tinnitus, and raise awareness of the fact that there are millions who have lost the sound of silence to the constant sound of tinnitus. We hope you'll continue to support us through donations, spreading the word about ATA through social media, and letting others know that we are here to help the tinnitus community. Through you, we make a difference!

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