How Hearing Loss and Tinnitus Affect Our Veterans

By Emily Shepard

Today is Veterans Day. The holiday is important not only because it honors our soldiers, but also because it is a time to raise awareness about their experiences on and off the battlefield. Hearing loss is a major health issue for soldiers, both active duty personnel and veterans. Any form of hearing loss can be detrimental to soldiers on duty, as the ability to hear signs of danger and to communicate with fellow soldiers is crucial for mission success and, more importantly, survival. According to the U.S. Department of Defense’s Hearing Center of Excellence (HCE), a whopping 60% of veterans have returned home with hearing loss or tinnitus over the last decade.

The Fall 2015 issue of Hearing Health magazine focused on hearing loss and tinnitus among U.S. military service members and veterans. In “Tuning Out the Noise,” Ashleigh Byrnes explains that tinnitus is one of the most prevalent injuries among veterans.  The number of veterans diagnosed with service-connected tinnitus is estimated at 1.5 million. According to Byrnes, persistent tinnitus can be “described as noise that prevents sleep or the ability to concentrate” and may “leave patients more vulnerable to other mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety.” Luckily, there are treatment methods, new and old, that can ease the symptoms of tinnitus. 

Sound therapy, long regarded as one of the most successful ways to treat tinnitus, has been practiced for more than 30 years. Between 60-90% of patients report relief from their symptoms using this method. Another option is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which may include the use of relaxation or distraction techniques, or altering the way patients think about their symptoms. Those who try sound therapy or CBT may be able to cope with tinnitus with more positive outcomes.

When it comes to hearing loss, soldiers are at an increased risk. They are susceptible to noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) due to exposure to loud machinery and explosions on a constant basis. In combat, soldiers are often exposed to sudden noises, such as from an improvised explosive device (IED) or other similar weapons, which are difficult to predict and prevent against.  These sudden noises can result in temporary hearing loss and put military personnel at risk. However, the word “temporary” should be approached with caution. Repeated short-term hearing loss can damage the sensitive hair cells in the inner ear, causing hearing loss that becomes permanent.

With an inability to grow back, inner ear hair cells, when they are damaged or die, can lead to permanent hearing loss. HHF is actively working to reverse this trend. Researchers funded by HHF’s Emerging Research Grants program (ERG) discovered that birds have the ability to spontaneously re-grow inner ear hair cells after they are damaged and restore their hearing—unlike mammals. Through HHF’s Hearing Restoration Project (HRP), a consortium of top hearing scientists is working to translate this finding to the human ear. The HRP’s goal is to regenerate inner ear hair cells in humans and permanently restore hearing to those affected by hearing loss, such as soldiers and veterans. The HRP researchers have made significant strides in this research and have been working hard to find meaningful answers, which you can read about here.

To learn more about hearing loss and tinnitus, please visit our Veterans’ Resource Page.

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