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Will.i.am. Bob Dylan. Barbra Streisand. Phil Collins. What do they all have in common? Besides decades in the music industry and record-breaking albums, they’ve all experienced one, nagging problem that’s been plaguing the industry for years: tinnitus.
If you’re unaware, tinnitus is best described as the perception of hearing sound without any actual, external noise. Those who have tinnitus experience a wide range of sounds and symptoms, including a sharp ringing, whistling, buzzing, whooshing, or clicking noise. The sounds can be barely audible, or loud, near-constant, or they can come and go. According to the American Tinnitus Association (ATA), nearly 50 million people have experienced some form of tinnitus, with as many as 20 million experiencing debilitating cases.
In a way, there’s nothing extraordinary about having one of the most common health conditions in the United States — it can be caused by a lot of things. But in your mind, you’re probably imagining tinnitus as a post-concert after-effect, walking off to the parking lot or onto public transport while your ears ring incessantly, only to be fine the next morning when you wake up. What about the people that play onstage night after night?
According to The British Medical Journal, professional musicians are almost four times more likely to develop noise-induced hearing loss than the general public, a whopping 57% more likely to develop tinnitus as a result of their job. The famed musicians we listed above are just a fraction of those who have spoken out on their tinnitus experiences.
As music venues have (mostly) reopened, and tours kick off into 2022, session musicians and touring artists (alongside you avid live concert-goers out there) are some of the most likely to experience ear and hearing issues, including tinnitus. Make no mistake that tinnitus doesn’t always have to equate hearing loss (although sometimes it can be an early warning sign), but it is at best, annoyingly intrusive, and at worst, life-changing. Enter: Neosensory Duo.
Neosensory Duo: The First Wearable Device For Tinnitus
Neosensory is a California-based tech company led by Stanford neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman, who’ve partnered with engineers at the forefront of hearing and sensory technology to create a wearable meant to treat tinnitus not within your ears — but from the brain itself.
Dr. Eagleman explains that “one of the leading causes of tinnitus is prolonged exposure to loud environments. As you’d expect, the most affected populations include military personnel, construction workers and, you guessed it, musicians and concertgoers.”
The company had previously launched their Buzz device last year, another wearable which allowed deaf and hard-of-hearing users to “feel” the sound around them through vibrations on their skin that synced up with the dynamic noise from doorbells ringing, people talking, etc. Over time, this helps the brain interpret these sound vibrations, and you can be more aware of their surroundings.
Backed by 10 years of research, their latest wearable, the Neosensory Duo, utilizes aspects of the Buzz, promising to retrain your brain for just 10 minutes a day through a combined technique of bimodal sound and touch therapy. So what is bimodal therapy, anyways? And how can something on your wrist work to ease up a hearing issue?
Bimodal therapy basically just means using two methods of sensory stimulation simultaneously, in this case sound and touch. Neosensory’s unique wristband (available in Small or Large) is outfitted with four motors that create vibrations on the skin, synchronized to sounds the wearer is listening to. According to the company, this non-invasive method utilizes neuroplasticity (that “brain retraining,” similar to those popular puzzle apps) to “reduce tinnitus symptoms in 87% of users in as little as three weeks.”
Does the Neosensory Duo Actually Work?
Admittedly, I was a bit skeptical, having already tried a variety of remedies for my own tinnitus, from meditation to cutting back on salt. But it seemed a simple enough solution — an 8-week program that may or may not bring me some relief. Full disclosure: my tinnitus isn’t that severe, but definitely ramps up when I’m stressed out. So I was interested to see what, if any, long term effects it might have on the sound.
What surprised me most was that Neosensory Duo’s tinnitus program is just that: a program. You get sent the wristband, and then are required to download the smartphone app to sync it to. The app plays a scale of tones that modulate from low to high frequencies, while the wristband vibrates according to the sound. After pairing up the wristband, all I had to do was listen to 10 minutes of tones every day for 8-weeks, or two months. I thought to myself, is that really it?
But I can definitely see how the ease-of-use (the wristband isn’t heavier than your average wristwatch) and quick daily exercise would make it perfect for artists on the road. “We have a number of high-profile musicians using our tinnitus program. Some of them have discussed their condition publicly, but many others choose to keep it private,” Dr. Eagleman told Rolling Stone. “Considering that 15% of the population suffers from it, you’d expect it to find more exposure, especially in music-related circles.”
While that exposure might not be there quite yet, it’s not surprising. There currently is no formal “cure” for tinnitus, and most treatments offered boil down to generally relieving stress, or worse, ‘just deal with it.’ This wearable could change the game — it’s not without its kinks, though. The day I started I literally felt the vibrations in my ear, and it wasn’t the most pleasant sensation (although this did ease up after a week). The tones, at full volume, were so loud my roommate barged into our home office to ask if I had decided to start using dial-up again. The sound frequencies combined with the constant vibrations also makes it difficult to get any actual work done for 10 minutes, if you try to sit and do anything other than listen to the beeps. But long term, we can see this becoming a musician’s best post-concert companion.
Dr. Eagleman told us that several members of the Neosensory team are actually musicians themselves, and they’ve all benefited from the tinnitus program. “Separately, we’ve created a ‘music mode’ for the wristband, which translates music into vibrations — giving a deeper immersion into the music.”
Is the Neosensory Duo Worth It?
Because the Neosensory Duo is actually a temporary program, you can get it through two different rental programs. For $249/month for two months you’ll get the wristband, along with unlimited access to the smartphone app. Then there’s the upgraded Tinnitus Pro plan for $399/month, which includes two video consultations with a tinnitus-specialized audiologist, in addition to the wristband and app access (we did not test this service).
After the two-month rental period, users must either return their Neosensory Duo or purchase it forever for two more payments of $249. As far as why there’s such a short turn-around on the product, Dr. Eagleman said “People generally reach their maximum effect in eight weeks. As far as we know, there’s no reason to run it longer than that.”
Overall, my experience was extremely positive, and definitely affected my tinnitus for the better. While before, I would have an audible ringing in one ear, and quieter ringing on the other side when pressing a hand to my ear, both sides calmed down significantly. After about three and a half weeks in (around the time they said the results would become obvious), I noticed I could work in a quiet room for longer without being disrupted by the constant ringing, or having to plug in earbuds. At the end of the trial I was pleasantly surprised that even after a flare up due to moving apartments, the ringing subsided within a week.
Protecting your hearing health is important, whether you spring for volume-controlled headphones, or dutifully plug in ear plugs at every music festival. But if you’ve been listening to music on blast for years, and the damage is already done, Neosensory Duo is the closest thing to an accessible therapy that you can get. But don’t knock the power of prevention, warns Dr. Eagleman. “If you’re going to concerts, wear earplugs and don’t hang out right next to the speakers. If you return home after a show with ringing or buzzing in your ears, that’s a sign of damage. We all want to enjoy great music, but do so at a level that lets you keep enjoying music for the rest of your life.”