In the U.S., hearing loss is the most prevalent service-connected ailment affecting veterans. Over 2.3 million veterans receive disability compensation for tinnitus and 1.3 million receive disability compensation for hearing loss. It was once reported that the VA was responsible for purchasing at least one in five hearing aids sold a year.
Nearly 60% of the veterans returning from combat zones report instances of tinnitus and hearing loss. The number one and two health ailments among U.S. military veterans are tinnitus and noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).
About tinnitus and hearing loss
Tinnitus is what refers to the ringing sound in the ears that happens without external stimulus. It can also sound like:
Hearing loss happens because of the inner ear or nerve damage due to exposure to loud noises and aging. There are three types of hearing loss:
- Sensorineural hearing loss is the most common and occurs when the inner ear becomes damaged. This is permanent but can be manageable with the use of hearing aids.
- Conductive hearing loss occurs when the outer or middle ear is unable to carry sound waves to the inner ear. It can sometimes be reversed through surgery or medication.
- Mixed hearing loss is a combination of both sensorineural and conductive hearing loss.
More recently, in the last ten years, the U.S. government has officially recognized Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD) and added it to the VA disability compensation list.
CAPD, also referred to as auditory processing disorder affects a person’s ability to understand speech, as a result of blast exposure. This condition is known to affect veterans whose hearing test scores are normal.
Causes of tinnitus and noise-induced hearing loss in Veterans
The major cause of hearing loss and tinnitus in military personnel is sustained exposure to loud noises.
Noise-induced hearing loss is avoidable and the military has employed the use of hearing protective devices (HPDs) such as earplugs, earmuffs, and even noise attenuating helmets to combat it.
Although these steps have been taken to protect the ear health of enlisted U.S. service members, they remain at high risk for incurring hearing loss and tinnitus.
Service members are exposed to loud noises and intense vibrations regularly during combat, in training, or during other duties and activities. On base or while deployed, loud noises can come from a number of sources including rockets, explosions, jet engines, loud machines, gunfire, etc.
Being exposed to noises over 70 decibels (dB) for extended periods can damage the ear. Being exposed to noises above 120 dB can cause immediate and permanent damage.
Hearing loss is measured in decibels:
- Normal loss (0 to 25 dB HL)
- Mild loss (26 to 40 dB HL)
- Moderate loss (41 to 70 dB HL)
- Severe loss (71 to 90 dB HL)
- Profound loss (91 dB HL and over)
Average decibel levels in everyday life:
- Normal conversation (60-70 dB)
- Movie theater (74-104 dB)
- Motorbikes (80-110 dB)
- Headphones on max (94-110 dB)
- Fireworks (140-160dB)
Average noise levels in the military:
- Helicopter (105dB)
- Armored personnel carrier (120dB)
- M-16 (130-150DB)
- Jet engine (140dB)
- Explosions/IEDs (180+dB)
Treating tinnitus and hearing loss in Veterans
It’s important to address ear health concerns as soon as possible. Studies have shown that veterans with moderate to severe tinnitus have also been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and or PTSD. If left untreated, the symptoms get worse and can negatively impact daily life.
Although there is no cure for tinnitus there are programs designed to help manage it. Sound therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy have been utilized to cope with tinnitus.
It’s estimated that, for every five veterans that could benefit from hearing aids, only one veteran uses hearing aids.
Not only can hearing aids restore sound reception, but they can also disguise the ringing of tinnitus. People with tinnitus have reported experiencing relief from tinnitus when they are wearing hearing instruments.
The VA is the number one employer of audiologists and speech-language pathologists in the United States. Through the VA veterans have access to auditory rehabilitation services, hearing screenings and tests, education and treatment of tinnitus and hearing loss, and more.