Veterans and hearing loss

Perhaps you know somebody who has served in the military, and maybe even a war hero who suffered injuries. While data on hearing loss and tinnitus in the military is scarce, they are the two most reported service-related disabilities. Yet, this serious side effect isn’t on the public radar like visible physical injuries or psychologically devastating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Of course, it’s only recently that PTSD has been ingrained in the public conscience as a terrible consequence of war.

60%

of individuals with blast-related head injury suffer from hearing loss

Personal stories of hearing loss

Retired Army Capt. Mark Brogan suffered a nearly severed arm, as well as spine and brain damage from a suicide bomber in Iraq, yet he feels that his hearing loss and tinnitus are just as debilitating. Unlike horrific amputations and other obvious wounds, hearing loss is a silent and invisible side effect of serving in the military. Of course, for the vets who hear constant ringing in their ears, it isn’t silent. Stephen Carlson already had hearing loss from his first tour of duty in Afghanistan when a roadside bomb mangled one ear and eardrum in 2009. Six years later, he decided to undergo surgery and get cartilage grafts. After a difficult period of adjustment and rehab, he can hear again in his damaged ear.

Learn more about hearing loss in veterans

Traumatic head injury and hearing problems

Veterans with previous head injuries often have symptoms that are similar age-related hearing loss. They seek care because they have trouble understanding speech in noisy settings, following rapidly spoken or long-running speech, and difficulty hearing on the telephone. Hearing loss and tinnitus are more likely to result from a blast-related head injury than any other type, affecting as many as 60% of these individuals. Yet, individuals with non-military mild head injuries often report similar hearing issues. The following common co-occurring disorders were revealed in a 2017 study on Iraq and Afghanistan veterans:

  • Individuals diagnosed with an auditory dysfunction (hearing loss or tinnitus) were significantly higher among individuals with both traumatic head injuries and PTSD or with head injuries, PTSD, and depression.
  • Those with traumatic head injuries and PTSD were about twice as likely to have any auditory dysfunction.
  • Individuals with traumatic head injuries, PTSD, and depression were also about twice as likely to have hearing loss or tinnitus and nearly three times as likely to have both.
  • Depression was not associated with hearing loss and/or tinnitus, which contradicts other studies that suggest a link.

Non-Combat-Related hearing loss

People who serve in the military can suffer hearing loss even if they never see combat. Most hearing loss and tinnitus in the military are caused by noise exposure, such as gunfire, aircraft, tanks, heavy equipment, massive turbines powering ships, and roadside bombs. The noise emitted from a standard M16A2 rifle is 152 decibels, nearly twice the level that inflicts slow but permanent injury. Training exercises involving machine guns, artillery, and explosives makes some hearing damage inevitable, especially if ear protection is inadequate. When older veterans start experiencing normal age-related hearing loss, the problem gets worse.

Veteran hearing loss facts & stats

  • Among male veterans seeking Veteran’s Affairs (VA) care, 16–27% suffer from serious hearing loss and tinnitus, while 7–13% of female veterans experience hearing loss.
  • Many veterans who score normally on hearing tests have trouble understanding speech, a condition called central auditory processing disorder that is often associated with blast exposure.
  • An estimated 71% of soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan reported exposure to loud noise, and more than 15% reported ringing in their ears.
  • A 2015 study found that 72% of veterans with tinnitus had a co-occurring diagnosis of anxiety, 60% had depression, and 58% had both anxiety and depression.
  • A different 2015 study found that individuals who were deployed and exposed to combat were 1.6 times more likely to report new-onset hearing loss, compared to those who weren’t deployed.

2.7 million

veterans were receiving disability benefits for hearing loss or tinnitus in 2018

Treatment and compensation

Individuals with a prior TBI who complain of auditory difficulties should always be evaluated for a potential auditory processing disorder, even when their injury occurred several years prior to the evaluation. Veterans who suffer from hearing loss can access a full range of hearing services at VA medical clinics, including diagnostic testing, counseling, implantable devices, and state-of-the-art hearing aids. This is important because untreated hearing loss can exacerbate or lead to mental health issues already associated with serving in the military, such as PTSD and depression. As of March 2018, more than 2.7 million veterans were receiving disability benefits for hearing loss or tinnitus, so don’t hesitate to contact the VA to see if you or a loved one qualify.

Contact an hearing aid professional

Remember, you’re not alone in this journey. Just like you rely on your favorite mechanic to keep your car engine running smoothly, establishing and maintaining a good relationship with a highly-rated licensed hearing care professional is key to keeping your hearing aids in optimal working condition. 

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Veterans and hearing loss

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