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Matt Lauer Interview

"Today" Show - 9/15/97

MATT LAUER, co-host:
This morning on "Today's Health," the captain of the Enterprise, William Shatner, has boldly gone from where many men have gone before, to a place no one wants to be. He suffers from tinnitus, a constant ringing in the ears, or head noise, that simply won't go away. Our man in Hollywood, Jim Brown, sat down with the star to talk about his mission to help other sufferers.

JIM BROWN reporting:
It is a humorous moment in "Star Trek IV" when the Enterprise crew travels back to the 20th century and William Shatner's Captain Kirk reacts negatively to the deafening noise of a punk rocker's boom box.

(Footage shown from "Star Trek IV")

BROWN: That was 1986. A few years later it was not so funny when Shatner began hearing noises where there were none.

WILLIAM SHATNER: I remember having a surge of panic. And that moment of panic, when I realized that I was hearing something inside my head, I wanted to run and escape the sound. And that only increased the panic because there was no place to run.

BROWN: Shatner, a man who spends more time on a horse than he ever did on the bridge of the Enterprise, learned that he, like millions of Americans, suffered from tinnitus, due to the permanent destruction of the nerve cells of the inner ear.

BROWN: What do you hear, then, if – if...

SHATNER: I'm hearing 'shhhhhh' all the time.

BROWN: When Shatner revealed his hearing problem to friends like Leonard Nimoy, he found not only sympathetic ear, but another tinnitus sufferer as well. They compared notes on what may have caused the damage.

SHATNER: We are both standing around an explosive device on a "Star Trek" film, and it – it prepared and went off. And I guess I must have been standing here, because I have it in my left, and he has it in his right ear. The volume of sound is not so important as your ability to accept it and – and not – not panic.

BROWN: But you didn't accept it, did you?

SHATNER: Not in the beginning. I – I thought I would go crazy.

BROWN: To the point that you actually were contemplating suicide?

SHATNER: There was a time when I thought, 'I don't think I can deal with this anymore.' And I began to actively think of what means you could use that – that you could end your life.

BROWN: What changed things? What – you said you can't cure it. But you can help it in some way.

SHATNER: I thought this has got to be positive. I have got to do something about this. And so I went on a journey of trying to do something about it, and met a lot of people along the way, and ended up in Baltimore for Tinnitus Retraining Therapy.

BROWN: And there, at the University of Maryland Medical Center, under doctors such as Pawel Jastreboff and Douglas Mattox, Shatner was treated using a device resembling a hearing aid which feeds so-called white sound into the ear.

SHATNER: And, eventually, what happens is the brain says, 'Oh, I – I know this sound. And I – I ignore that sound, and' – says the brain. And that teaches your head to accept the sound of the tinnitus. The real message here for me to you, and to your audience, is that although most doctors will tell their patient who comes in to them with this complaint that there's no help, there is help. There is hope.

LAUER: Dr. Stephen Nagler is a surgeon who is one of the 50 million people who suffer from tinnitus. He now helps others as director of as tinnitus clinic that just opened up in Atlanta. Dr. Nagler, good morning.

Dr. STEPHEN NAGLER: Good morning.

LAUER: First of all, it can be TINN-it-us or tin-NITE-us, either is correct, it really doesn't matter?

NAGLER: Both pronunciations are acceptable. That's right.

LAUER: What exactly is it? We hear about this ringing in the ears. But what exactly is happening inside the head?

NAGLER: Tinnitus is the experience of noise or sound either coming from the ear or coming from the head, as opposed to coming from an external source. It's a physical phenomenon, not a psychological issue. Tinnitus affects about 40 to 50 million Americans, about 15 percent of the population. And it can have various degrees of severity, from mildly irritating to totally incapacitating. About six million Americans have it to the extent that they don't function well at times – or worse.

LAUER: Can't sleep?

NAGLER: Can't sleep. They're irritated. About two million are actually disabled.

LAUER: William Shatner tried to, within his microphone, tell us what sound he's hearing. I'm sure the sound differs slightly for all different people. Give us an example using this device what a tinnitus sufferer might hear. And is that about the volume they would hear it?

(Dr. Nagler uses tinnitus simulator.)

NAGLER: It varies from person to person. But when YOU hear that sound, what you want to do is either leave the room or put your hands over your ears. When a tinnitus sufferer hears that sound, if he leaves the room, the sound travels with him. He puts his hands over his ears, and the sound just gets louder. There's no escape.

LAUER: So this can develop at any time in one's life. Is it injury-related at all?

NAGLER: It is somewhat injury-related. There are several possible causes. But the most common cause is noise-induced tinnitus. What happens is a disorder or disarray develops in the cochlea, which is right over here (points to model of ear), the snail-like structure with hair cells in the inner ear. And then, at some point – and this is one of Dr. Jastreboff's big contributions – many people believe that at some point the tinnitus signal travels actually into the brain to the limbic system which sits in here (points to model of brain), near the medial temporal lobe of the brain. The limbic system is the seat of various emotions – love, hate, and fear. The limbic system sees the tinnitus as an unwelcome, threatening intruder. It grabs it and it won't let go.

LAUER: William Shatner mentioned that there is help available. You can't cure this. Without getting into specific treatments, what should someone do if they – if he or she feels that he does have tinnitus?

NAGLER: Four things, without getting into specific treatments. The first thing is to find a board-certified ENT doctor, or an otologist, an ear doctor, who is INTERESTED in tinnitus, so you won't wind up with the story 'Go home and learn to live with it.' We don't need that anymore. It's inappropriate, unacceptable. The second thing is to join the American Tinnitus Association in Portland, Oregon. Very, very important. You get flooded with information and data. The third thing is to protect your auditory system. Tinnitus doesn't cause hearing loss. Hearing loss doesn't cause tinnitus. But as your hearing becomes worse, tinnitus can become more apparent. So the two things to do in that regard are to avoid silence – sound is good for the auditory system – and avoid loud noises; protect yourself from loud noises. And the fourth thing to do is write to your congressman; we need money. We need money so that I'm out of a job. We need a cure. We have at the present is very good treatment, but we don't have a cure.

LAUER: Dr. Stephen Nagler, thanks very much.

Dr. NAGLER: Thank you.

LAUER: Appreciate it. By the way, if you'd like to know more about tinnitus, you can call the American Tinnitus Association. The number is 800-634-8978.