By Imani Rodriguez
After 26 years of military service, Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) Board Chair Col. John Dillard (U.S. Army, Ret.) lives with tinnitus and noise-induced hearing loss. Tinnitus is one of the most prevalent war injuries among American veterans—and hearing loss is equally common—and Dillard is dedicated to improving the lives of millions through the advancement of tinnitus research that will lead to more reliable treatments and, eventually, permanent relief through cures. Tinnitus is the perception of ringing or buzzing in the ears without an external sound source.
In addition to supporting the advancement of more viable treatments and cures for tinnitus through HHF’s groundbreaking research, Dillard is a U.S. Department of Defense consumer reviewer for the Peer Review Medical Research Program (PRMRP), part of the U.S. government’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs.
After meeting qualifications through a rigorous annual application process, Dillard has been a tinnitus consumer reviewer for three years, a role he expects to continue. As a senior lecturer for systems acquisition management at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, he is well connected with members of the military community, many who also live with tinnitus. He is a valuable contributor to discussions about tinnitus with scientists and the general public alike.
As a tinnitus consumer reviewer for the PRMRP, Dillard is responsible for evaluating and scoring tinnitus research proposals based on their potential for scientific and clinical impact. His academic experience as a military researcher has allowed him to assist with the critical thinking and reasoning aspects of each proposal. And from his own military experience, Dillard is keenly aware of how vital this research is for those returning from combat.
Tinnitus is a chronic condition without an existing reliable treatment, although certain products on the market claim otherwise. “There are no nutritional, pharmacological, surgical, deep brain or transdermal electrical stimulation, sound, transcranial magnetic, or other therapies proven efficacious for tinnitus,” Dillard says. “There are many treatments marketed to the naive consumer or patient/sufferer, but none of them are truly effective. Most folks who know me understand my extreme cautions against what I consider ‘snake oil’ treatments. People should spend no money on these products.”
Dillard says one exception using sound therapy is Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT), currently considered the gold standard in coping with—but not eliminating or curing—disruptive levels of tinnitus. “I have personally benefited from TRT,” he says. TRT involves wearing ear-level devices that work to deliver masking noise to the brain, with or without hearing amplification; the therapy can typically be incorporated into hearing aids.
Dillard is confident progress will continue to be made by both HHF and the Department of Defense. “We know now that tinnitus is more of a ‘brain problem’ that usually starts from damage to the ear in the form of noise-induced hearing loss,” he says.
“We need to help the brain heal itself and correct what is actually an auditory ‘hallucination’ of hyperactive neuronal activity. It’s a very resilient, maladaptive feedback loop that works much like learned pain,” Dillard adds “We also hope for various pharmacological approaches being tried that can help tamp down this hyperactivity. I’m hopeful that we will see progress on treating tinnitus in our lifetimes.”
Col. John Dillard (U.S. Army, Ret.) was appointed Chair of Hearing Health Foundation’s Board of Directors July 1, 2019, after joining the Board in February 2018. He wrote about his experience in the military and how it affected his hearing as the Fall 2017 Hearing Health cover story. HHF marketing and communications intern Imani Rodriguez studied communications and public relations at Rutgers University.