By Yishane Lee
Veterans are uniquely affected by noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) and tinnitus. These two conditions are the top complaints among returning military personnel. In part due to ongoing conflicts abroad, there have been more than 1 million cases of tinnitus, hearing loss, and other auditory disorders over the past decade.
Noise exposure during service in Iraq and Afghanistan is to blame, but veterans from older conflicts also report their hearing has been damaged, likely in part due to their military service decades ago.
At HHF, we have been working with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to bring attention to this major health threat among veterans. Among the average population, the risk of NIHL in the workplace is something that is very preventable, through the use of earplugs, sound-damping architectural or interior design features, and plain-old noise breaks, as mandated by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.
But out in the field, with the machinery that is necessary for military readiness and the constant risk of facing potential enemy combatants, hearing well—and the ability to hear signs of danger and fellow soldiers—can be a matter of life or death. Sudden noises, such as from an improvised explosive device (IED) or other weapons, can’t necessarily be predicted—and protected from.
What’s more, the temporary hearing loss that results from a sudden loud explosion puts the military personnel even more at risk. (Think about how your hearing is muffled after a loud concert. Now think about experiencing that muffled hearing in a tense combat situation.) Although recent research has found that short-term hearing loss may actually protect hearing, if it is repeated often enough, the sensitive hair cells in the inner ear die, leading to permanent hearing loss. (HHF is working to find a way to regenerate hair cells, through our Hearing Restoration Project.)
The VA has been working to remedy the situation. Together with the Department of Defense, its Veterans Health Administration launched the Hearing Center of Excellence to provide education and resources to members of the military. Among the Texas-based center’s mission drivers and goals are prevention and education, accurate and comprehensive data collection, and research into effective treatments, according to otolaryngologist Mark D. Packer, M.D., its founding director. (And yes, we here at HHF have the same goals, along with the search for a cure for hearing loss and tinnitus.)
The VA is also conducting clinical trials to find an effective tinnitus treatment, including the landmark Tinnitus Retraining Therapy Trial, headed by Craig Formby, Ph.D. A sequential tinnitus treatment, called Progressive Tinnitus Management, is also showing promise among veterans. For one thing, part of the treatment can be done remotely, over the phone or the computer. This diminishes the need for frequent trips to a VA hospital, which veterans say can be difficult to maintain because of work, other injuries, finances, or sheer distance.
This Veterans Day, please take a moment to remember the service that our fellow Americans have volunteered to perform for the rest of the country, and share your stories and comments below.