War wounds. The words bring to mind missing limbs or PTSD. But the most common war wound among veterans is actually tinnitus. The second most common war-related disability is hearing loss. Why are tinnitus and hearing loss so common among veterans? And what is being done to prevent and help treat hearing problems in veterans?
Hearing Loss Statistics
Hearing loss affects over 28 million Americans. While the general population experiences a higher percentage of age-related hearing loss, in the military, younger soldiers are returning home from combat with hearing damage. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, by the end of 2014, more than 933,000 Veterans received disability compensation for hearing loss. Close to 1.3 million Veterans were receiving compensation for tinnitus. Auditory processing disorder is also common amongst Veterans, most likely the result of blast injuries. Auditory processing disorder is a condition where there is no diagnosable hearing loss but the person still has difficulty understanding speech.
A Soldier’s Noise-filled Life
Noise surrounds a soldier on a combat base. From artillery fire to the roar of generators, soldiers are routinely exposed to noise levels in decibels loud enough to produce hearing loss. Military transport, from tanks to Humvees to fighter jets, are all extremely noisy and have the potential to damage hearing if adequate ear protection is not worn. Bomb blasts and artillery fire also have the potential to damage hearing and cause tinnitus. Auditory insults, both acute and chronic, can cause hearing loss and tinnitus. As mentioned above, bomb blasts have the potential to cause Auditory processing disorder where hearing is still normal but the ability to comprehend speech is diminished.
In addition to noise, exposure to jet fuel may also cause auditory processing disorders. According to new VA research, exposure to jet propulsion fuel-8 can cause auditory brainstem dysfunction. While hearing is still intact, the brain has trouble deciphering the noise, particularly as it relates to speech. Instead of hearing words and sentences, a brain with auditory processing disorder will only hear a jumble of noise and be unable to place any meaning in what it is hearing.
Prevention is always the first step to addressing a problem. Using adequate ear protection in combat situations should always be the first line of defense against hearing loss and hearing-related problems. According to the Hearing Health Foundation, there are several methods of ear protection. Level-dependent earplugs can block high frequency or intermittent noises while still preserving the ability to hear soft sounds. Earmuffs will block all sounds and are best used intermittently. Noise-attenuating helmets will protect the head and eyes as well as protecting hearing. Noise-reducing technology inside the helmet monitors sound energy and reduces unwanted noise. A microphone inside the helmet provides radio communication. Suppressors on automatic weapons can reduce the noise of gunfire by 30 decibels, which can help avoid hearing damage.
If hearing loss has already occurred, hearing aids can help restore hearing. The VA and NIH (National Institute of Health) began collaborating in 1992 in order to develop more effective and technologically sophisticated hearing aids. Research studies are also being performed by the VA to help manage and alleviate tinnitus.
While hearing loss and hearing-related problems are often overlooked in Veterans, it is important that research continues on how to protect and treat hearing-related problems that have been sustained during military service. Education is key as Veterans should understand how hearing loss and tinnitus can affect them and the methods of prevention and treatments that are available. Military personnel put their lives on the line for their country. Their nation needs to work to ensure that they receive the help they need to thrive when they return home. Protecting and treating hearing is one way we can help.